Researchers at the University of East Anglia, together with help from the University of Leeds and the University of Cambridge, all in the UK, are working on a way to synthesize hydrogen via a process similar to photosynthesis. The program is headed up by Prof Julea Butt, who explains “Reserves of fossil fuels are dwindling, and fuel prices are rising, so it’s really vital that we look to renewable energy supplies. Many renewable energy supplies, such as sunlight, wind and the waves, remain largely untapped resources. This is mainly due to the challenges that exist in converting these energy forms into fuels from which energy can be released on demand – for example when we want to switch on a light, boil water, play computer games, or drive a car. We have been inspired by natural plant processes. During plant photosynthesis, fuels are made naturally from the energy in sunlight. Light absorption by the green chlorophyll pigments generates an energised electron that is directed, along chains of metal centres, to catalysts that make sugars.”
As Wired reports, the idea is to attach tiny solar cells to microbes to aid in the making of hydrogen, although Prof Butt didn’t go into detail about how exactly this would work. The manufacturing of hydrogen has thus far proven to be the single greatest shortcoming of this otherwise very green, efficient and usable type of fuel. Indeed, the methods of extracting energy from hydrogen already exist, but the means by which it is harnessed and stored remain massively inefficient. The team at UEA has just received a £800,000 grant from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council and the potential for the team’s research will undoubtedly have a wide range of applications, specifically in the automotive industry where no real form of alternative fuel has cornered the market.