Reinventing Photosynthesis

For decades, the development of renewable energy has focused largely on electricity generation. But more than 60% of the world’s energy is provided directly by chemical (mainly fossil) fuels, with no intermediate conversion to electricity – a constraint that no realistic effort to combat global warming can ignore.

PASADENA – For decades, the development of renewable energy – and the policy debates that surround it – has focused largely on electricity generation. But more than 60% of the world’s energy is provided directly by chemical (mainly fossil) fuels, with no intermediate conversion to electricity. No realistic effort to combat global warming by cutting carbon emissions can ignore this fundamental constraint.

Indeed, in the United States and other industrialized countries, many applications that rely on fossil fuels (such as air transport or aluminum production) cannot be reconfigured to use electrical power. Moreover, fossil fuels are required to produce electricity as well, both to meet demand and to compensate for the intermittency of renewable energy systems such as wind or solar power. Is there really a scalable, low-carbon alternative?

One promising approach is artificial photosynthesis, which uses non-biological materials to produce fuels directly from sunlight. The sun is a nearly inexhaustible energy source, while energy stored in the form of chemical bonds – like those found in fossil fuels – is accessible, efficient, and convenient. Artificial photosynthesis combines these features in a viable technology that promises energy security, environmental sustainability, and economic stability.

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