Plants are an essential part to maintaining our life on earth, through the process of photosynthesis they are able to absorb CO2 emissions and release essential hydrocarbons. But amazingly, plants store only about 1% of the energy they gather. Scientists have been looking for a way to increase this amount, and past results have been successful by a percentage point or two, but nothing ground-breaking. Until now.
Researchers found a way to link plants to solar panels via a hybrid device that contains various enzymes and microbes. This device is able to convert some 10% of the gathered solar panel by plants and convert it into fuels and other chemicals.
If this discovery takes off and gains enough traction, it could solve a very big world issue: renewable energy. Researchers have long looked at ways to store the excess energy generated by solar and wind power, particularly as these two forms of energy production are starting to become more popular among both governments and consumers. Unfortunately, batteries quickly lose their effectiveness due to their high cost. The idea now is to use chemicals that are rich in energy and store them in chemical tanks of sorts, which could be both more manageable and cost effective. This is where the energy that plants create comes into play.
The idea began back at Harvard University with a chemist named Dan Nocera who, with his team, were able to create an artificial leaf that utilized energy directly from sunlight in order to separate water and oxygen into pure hydrogen gas. The gas could then be put into a fuel cell in order to generate electricity. The problem though was that the energy density of the gas was so low, due to its vapor state. The small bit of fuel produced in the form of gas required huge storage tanks and high amounts of pressure in order to keep it compressed. Utilizing biological life directly to do this process has been tremendously more efficient, since the energy can now be stored chemically instead of as a gas.
Researchers nevertheless cautious against too much optimism. Whilst the solar fuel method with microbes and plants does look promising, it still has a very long way to go before it could replace oil as a primary source of fuel. Nocera states: “It’s very hard to make this competitive with digging oil out of the ground”. Nevertheless, it is hoped that methods like this will provide vast, alternate sources of energy in developing nations for billions of people in the not too distant future. Already the research team is eyeing India as a potential target.
Study Source: Science