Renewable energy: turning over a new leaf
12th August 2009
With commercial and domestic use of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, going sky high, the race is on to discover new, limitless sources of clean energy and in one latest research project, UK scientists are seeking to mimic photosynthesis as a source of power.
The untapped possibilities of the sun's rays are huge, with the energy contained in the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth in just one hour reckoned to be enough to power human activity across the globe for an entire year.
With the world’s energy needs
predicted to double by 2050, scientists around the world are trying to find out how to capture the sun’s power without further endangering the climate. And as fuel consumption grows, governments are spending millions in the hope of discovering new sources of clean energy. The USA and Holland, for example, will channel vast sums of funding
over the next few years into research
that could generate solar power.
In the UK, scientists at Imperial College, London, have embarked on ‘artificial leaf’, a £1 million project that will attempt to copy photosynthesis, which is the process where plants use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide
into sugar, in order to generate clean power. With the solar power systems developed so far proving to be too expensive compared with fossil fuels, the Imperial College project represents a new venture in the search for more efficient and cheaper alternative sources of energy
The Imperial research team is trying to work out exactly how leaves use sunlight to make useful molecules. Once this had been established, the aim is to build artificial systems that mimic this process in order to generate clean and limitless sources of hydrogen and methanol. These could be used in fuel cells to make electricity or directly to power super-clean vehicles
. The key difference is that the scientists are seeking to create devices that would not suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
It has been calculated that using an artificial leaf to split a few litres of water a day into hydrogen and oxygen would provide enough energy to power a home. According to James Barber, project leader at Imperial College, if artificial photosynthesis systems
could use approximately 10 per cent of the sunlight falling on them, they would need to cover less than two per cent of the Earth's surface in order to produce the energy the world is expected to consume by 2030.
The artificial leaf project is many years away from creating commercial products, but it is to be hoped that the research team will continue to receive all the help it needs to generate a source of power that could solve the energy needs of UK and world businesses. The team at Imperial believes the project offers the possibility of positioning the UK as a world leader in one of the very few solutions to a truly sustainable energy future, with wide-ranging, scientific, technological as well as commercial benefits.
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