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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Artificial Photosynthesis

Artificial Photosynthesis

Artifical Leaf Concept (credit: CalTech/Nature)
Cheap hydrogen to power fuel cells has been a dream of electric car proponents for years. It is abundant, renewable, and can be produced from a variety of sources. However, the gas is not readily or cheaply available. That may change if research on artificial photosynthesis pans out.

The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) at CalTech is using sunlight to produce hydrogen more efficiently than can be produced by the natural process. Early single-celled organisms had the capability to split water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, via constant evolution. Plants produced all the oxygen on Earth and allowed life to develop on land. In the university's labs, investigators are trying to replicate the natural process using electronics and new materials to imitate what green leaves do and improve on the process if possible. Some progress has been reported.

In the early 1970's, I was shown an early attempt to create artificial photosynthesis at the University of Colorado. Physicists thought it would be quick and easy but nearly 50 years later the research is still a long way its promise of delivering cheap hydrogen. As one of researchers in a report to Nature commented:

This is a really, really difficult, and challenging problem. The payback would be huge, but it's not as simple as everyone wanted it to be when we started playing in this area 40 years ago.”

Nature doesn't give up its secrets easily. If the promise of unlimited, renewable, and cheap hydrogen is to realized we need many teams like those at CalTech to decipher this secret of plants faster. Carbon pollution continues rising and vehicles still run on liquid hydrocarbon fuels.
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