Artificial photosynthesis may help to solve carbon emissions problem
Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, is now at its highest level in at least three million years, with 2013 seeing a record high in greenhouse gas emissions. And the more CO2 released into the atmosphere, the warmer our world becomes.
But now, scientists with the US Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley may have finally found a potential solution.
They have created a unique system, made out of nanowires and bacteria, that can capture CO2 emissions before they are vented into the atmosphere. It mimics the natural process of photosynthesis, during which plants use the energy in sunlight to synthesize carbohydrates from CO2 and water.
However, their idea converts CO2 and water into acetate, the most common building block today for biosynthesis. Even more amazing is that they then use solar energy to convert the CO2 into valuable chemical products, including biodegradable plastics, pharmaceutical drugs and even liquid fuels.
"We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis," Peidong Yang, one of the study's lead authors, said in a statement. "Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting them from deep below the ground."
While countries like the United States are trying to curb carbon emissions from coal power plants, the burning of fossil fuels will likely remain a significant source of energy for humanity in the foreseeable future. So figuring out a way to capture this carbon and lessen our effect on climate change is crucial. Scientists have come up with some technologies already for capturing carbon, for example, turning to carbon-trapping "sponges," converting it to a harmless organic compound, or even using baking soda to prevent it from leaking into the atmosphere.
However, these innovations are a long way off from widespread commercial use, and other technologies come with their own environmental challenges.