By Nick Collins
The technology is a “turbo-powered” version of photosynthesis, the natural process by which plants creates energy from sunlight, but uses electricity to spark the reaction. Rather than producing carbohydrates, the end product is fuel which could be used in petrol engines to power cars and even aeroplanes, researchers said.
The Glasgow University scientists running the project expect to have fine-tuned the method within two years, and to have built a working model within five. If used on a mass scale, the technology could supply a large quantity of the world’s fuel needs and be used instead of oil when stock starts to run out, they said.
Like photosynthesis, the process involves the absorption of carbon dioxide, so burning the fuel would not cause an increase in levels of the gas in the atmosphere.
Prof Richard Cogdell, who leads the research, said: “The big issue at the moment is that most renewable energy can only make electricity. “We have not got ways to store electricity, and the supply is intermittent.”
In contrast fuels like hydrogen and ethanol produced through the new process could provide “energy on demand”, he added. Despite following a similar process to photosynthesis, the “artificial leaves” would look nothing like a plant, Prof Cogdell said.
The designs consist of a large vat of water and genetically engineered bacteria which absorb sunlight but also use electricity from solar panels. This will make the technology more efficient than plants, which typically only generate half a per cent more energy than they use up during photosynthesis, Prof Cogdell said. The bacteria will convert the energy into hydrocarbon fuels, in a similar biological process to the method used by plants to make carbohydrates.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Prof Cogdell said: “This is one of the grand challenges that mankind faces if we are going to sustain our way of life after oil runs out. “We have to be able to make renewable, sustainable dense portable fuels for transport, especially for aeroplanes and ships, and electricity is just not going to cut it.”