UEA scientists mimic nature in £800,000 renewable energy project
It is well-accepted that we need to find new, renewable sources of energy such as wind or geothermal, but UEA scientists have taken it a step further in putting what are essentially tiny solar panels onto microbes. This £800,000 project, undertaken in conjunction with the University of Cambridge and University of Leeds, and funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), creates an artificial photosynthesis reaction, exploiting the energy from sunlight and generating hydrogen. Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, which is already being used to drive London buses, as well as transport in many other European countries. Many people envisage a clean, hydrogen-based future, where the only emission from vehicles and fuel is water. Currently, hydrogen production technology is limited to being made mainly from fossil fuels, but with advances in technology such as this, renewable generation of hydrogen is becoming increasingly possible.
The project was inspired by natural photosynthesis, with scientists attempting to replicate it. Chlorophyll pigment absorbs light and energises an electron that creates sugars via chain reactions and with the help of catalysts. By using miniscule solar panels, the team aim to “harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well-advanced” says Prof Julea Butt, from UEA’s school of Chemistry and school of Biological Sciences.
It is expected that the technology will be more efficient than existing solar converters – top end solar photovoltaic panels (PV) have a laboratory efficiency rating of only around 17%, which falls even lower once installed outside optimum lab conditions. There is enormous capacity for renewable energy, but a vast amount of it is unrealised, mainly because of the difficulty in converting solar energy into useful forms that can be used for transport, electricity, or heating, for example. The scientists in the team have high hopes for their budding technology, however; they “imagine that our photocatalysts will prove versatile and that with slight modification they will be able to harness solar energy for the manufacture of carbon-based fuels, drugs and fine chemicals”. It may take a while before we are seeing houses powered by microbes, but this is certainly and exciting step in the right direction.