Photosynthesis is the process that plants use to turn water, carbon dioxide, and energy from sunlight into plant biomass. It provides humans and much of animal life with food. Photosynthesis is also nature’s way of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The CO2 is not directly stored in plants but rather is combined into organic compounds.
Researchers across the globe are trying to find effective ways to mimic photosynthesis. One version of artificial photosynthesis seeks to take carbon dioxide and combine it into organic compounds that can be used as raw materials for various kinds of manufacturing.
A research team in Japan has found a way to synthesize fumaric acid from carbon dioxide using sunlight to power the process. Fumaric acid is a chemical typically synthesized from petroleum and is used as a raw material for making biodegradable plastics such as polybutylene succinate.
Much of artificial photosynthesis research is aimed at using solar energy to convert carbon dioxide directly into a fuel rather than a raw material. Such solar fuels can be produced by a variety of means including thermochemical (using the sun’s heat to drive chemical reactions), photochemical (using the sun’s light to drive chemical reactions), and electrochemical (using solar-generated electricity to drive chemical reactions.) These approaches generally involve the use of specialized catalysts to drive the desired chemical reactions.
One way or another, what techniques for artificial photosynthesis have in common is trying to imitate what plant life on Earth has been doing for millions of years.
Artificial photosynthesis uses sunlight to make biodegradable plastic
Photo, posted June 14, 2017, courtesy of Alex Holyake via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio