Scientists unlock nature’s hydrogen secrets

Two Canberra scientists believe they have made a major breakthrough in how to best produce hydrogen which can be used as a clean and renewable energy source.

Professors Rob Stranger and Ron Pace from the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University (ANU) have used computer modelling to reveal the molecular structure of the photosynthesis reaction site in plants.

Professor Pace says the discovery takes a leaf out of nature’s handbook, for the first time identifying the specific water molecules in a plant’s photosystem that are converted into oxygen.

“Nature very early on in the evolutionary process on Earth figured out how to do this particular piece of chemistry with close to 100 per cent efficiency,” he said.

Professor Stranger says the work offers clues as to how scientists can create alternative fuel.

“The part of the plant’s photosystem that is important to this process is called the oxygen-evolving-complex (OEC),” he said.

“If we can steal nature’s secrets and understand how the OEC performs its chemistry, then we can learn to make hydrogen much more efficiently, and hydrogen is the fuel for a totally renewable fuel future.”

Professor Pace says that while scientists know the OEC contains four manganese atoms and a calcium atom, they have been trying for decades to determine the exact structure of the system and how it works.

The next step for the two scientists is to publish their findings before handing it over to a laboratory to try and mimic the process of photosynthesis, something they believe will be a reality within five years.

But Professor Pace is quick to ease thoughts the future will involve leaving a car in the sun and fuelling it up with a garden hose.

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