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How Artificial Photosynthesis Could Turn Greenhouse Gases Into Energy

From Velcro to Kevlar, some of the best technological breakthroughs were inspired by nature. Now, a scientist worried about global warming has found a potential solution in a natural process: photosynthesis. The development could not only reduce greenhouse gases and help fight global warming, but also generate energy in the process.

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UCF Assistant Professor Fernando Uribe-Romo has found a way to trigger artificial photosynthesis.

How It Works

Worrying about greenhouse gases took scientists right to plants for inspiration on cleaning up the air. In photosynthesis, plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to make energy by removing the carbon dioxide from the air and making a useful product. Researchers have been working for some time on the idea of non-plant photosynthesis in order to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Fernando Uribe-Romo of the University of Central Florida has taken the idea further by developing a promising new technology, which he describes in a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Materials Chemistry A. According to a UCF news release, Uribe-Romo's team was able to trigger a chemical reaction similar to photosynthesis in a synthetic material. That material, known as a metal-organic framework or MOF, broke down carbon dioxide in the presence of blue LED lights. The carbon dioxide became two types of harmless organic material: formate and formamides. The best part? Those both just so happen to be forms of solar fuel.

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While scientists have achieved forms of artificial photosynthesis with certain materials by using UV light, this development is special for its ability to use light in the visible spectrum—something much more plentiful here on Earth. But while blue light is nice, the team wants to see if they can achieve the same thing with other wavelengths. "The goal is to continue to fine-tune the approach so we can create greater amounts of reduced carbon so it is more efficient," Uribe-Romo said in the news release.

The blue LEDs responsible for artificial photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis At The Factory And At Home

Once the kinks are all worked out, Uribe-Romo says one potential use for the new technology could be with coal-burning power plants. In a video, he explains how power plants already must "scrub" the carbon dioxide, or separate it from what's being burned. With this application, the carbon dioxide could then be exposed to light to trigger artificial photosynthesis. "That carbon dioxide could be turned into a fuel and that fuel could be fed up again to the power plant," Uribe-Romo said. That means a power plant could recycle its own carbon dioxide and keep the environment cleaner.

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The UCF news release speculates that artificial photosynthesis could one day show up in consumer products, maybe in something like roof shingles on your house that automatically swap out the neighborhood's greenhouse gases for energy. Of course, there's a long way to go before that, so for now it's best for the rest of us to focus on reducing the amount of greenhouse gases filling the atmosphere in the first place.

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Written by Haley Otman May 2, 2017

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