Humans depend on plants for oxygen and to keep the environment clean of CO2. The increase in human population and activities has resulted in a steady decline in plants and thus in the danger of increasing global warming as well as dwindling energy options. In order to fight this almost inevitable catastrophe, researchers are coming up with a way of carrying out the process plants use to create energy outside the plants. This is called artificial photosynthesis.
The process will work in a nanotube acting as a leaf to collect sunlight and split water molecules. Unlike plants, which produce oxygen only, this artificial system will also produce hydrogen, used for several purposes like fuel.
The artificial photosynthesis is set up in a way that it could provide humans with more than just oxygen. It could also produce liquid hydrogen which can be used as fuel or be directed to a fuel cell. The hydrogen is extracted from the hydrogen molecules present in water.
Splitting the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules in water requires up to 2.5 volts. Therefore the system needs catalysts to initiate the process.
Some of the most successful catalysts thus far have been:
- Dye-sensitized titanium dioxide
- Cobalt oxide
Artificial Photosynthesis Application
The success of artificial photosynthesis is set to be a major game changer in the fuel production and affordability. Currently, almost all fuel options have their limitations. Coal is polluting the environment, fossil fuels are rare to find and are also pollutants causing global warming, wind turbines are not good for the landscapes, and collecting solar energy is expensive. Therefore, artificial photosynthesis may be the best alternative to the existing options.
Artificial photosynthesis produces liquid hydrogen that can be used as gasoline in hydrogen-powered systems. It can also be used in a fuel-cell setup. This is where it combines hydrogen and oxygen to form water and creating electricity. Thus it reverses the photosynthesis process. Hydrogen fuel can also be used in running home appliances like water heaters and air conditioners.
Artificial photosynthesis provides the best alternative for environmental energy sources. It comes with no harmful byproducts or pollutants. Instead, it would be a method to withdraw the excess CO2 from our environment. It also does not require drilling, mining or growing.
Challenges in Artificial Photosynthesis
There are still several challenges the adoption of artificial photosynthesis faces in mass production. Even if carrying out artificial photosynthesis in labs has been successful, replicating it in mass production in a synthetic system is on another level. This is due to concerns about efficiency. It took ages for plants to perfect photosynthesis.
Manganese has been proven to be the preferred catalyst. But it comes with its own fair share of challenges. It is not suitable for a man-made system as it is unstable. It also does not dissolve in water and gets depleted fast. This means that a manganese-based system is unmanageable and inefficient.
The issue of stability does not only apply to Manganese but also the other organic catalysts. They either do degrade or start other reactions that end up damaging the working cells. Alternatively, there is the possibility of using metal-oxide catalysts as replacements. These catalysts are not fast enough though to make use of the photons produced in the system. Catalysts that would be fast enough are rare.
Currently, Cobalt oxide is our best shot at having sustainable artificial photosynthesis. It is a fast and stable metal oxide which is also abundant in supply. Researchers are doing a lot of work to get it working and hopefully, it will work out the woes in the system.
Artificial photosynthesis is one of the best advances in modern science we have. It has to work, there’s no other option. The world needs a reliable and consistent source of energy that is not harmful to the environment. Water and carbon dioxide are in abundant supply on earth and are hard to deplete. Therefore the energy produced will be limitless and continuously available for consumers.
Currently artificial photosynthesis is confined to a lab, but hopefully, in 10 years or less, it may hit mass production. Let us, the consumers, be hopeful for a great energy-rich future.
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