If we should ask you what is the most efficient, the greenest, and the most reliable energy generating process, what would be your answer? Well, if your answer is photosynthesis process, then you are right. It is indeed the most amazing energy generating process on earth.
In this era of green energy generation, we still cannot compare our energy generation to the plants in term of efficiency and emission. The resources needed to do the process are free: sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. How can’t we call it the most efficient energy generation process?
What’s even more amazing is, the emission of this process is oxygen, which is useful instead of destructive to the nature. If only we can imitate this process, every single energy-generating-related problem we face nowadays will be solved.
Um, wait. So why don’t we ever try to find a way to imitate this process to overcome our energy crisis? Well, actually some researchers have tried to. That’s why, here in this article we will talk about the pursuit of artificial photosynthesis.
Giacomo Ciamician, an Italian chemist from early 1900s era might be the first one to realize that our dependence to fossil fuel is killing us. It was why he tried to find a clue for green energy generation. Photosynthesis was the first thing he ran into.
He found out that energy creation in photosynthesis process is entirely renewable, unlike fossil fuel. Not only relying entirely on natural sources (sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water), the only emission it produces is oxygen. There is no other waste.
He then thought whether it is possible to imitate the process and use it for our benefits. It might be the first scientific consideration about artificial photosynthesis, coming from early 1900s when energy crisis hasn’t struck us as hard as nowadays.
“Does it not seem that, with well-adapted systems of cultivation and timely intervention, we may succeed in causing plants to produce, in quantities much larger than the normal ones, the substances which are useful to our modern life?” he wondered.
At that time, Ciamician didn’t have the sophisticated equipment needed to make his dream come true. But more than one century later, Ciamician’s imagination based modern scientists to conduct the experiments.
How Far Are We?
We tell you the story of Ciamician to implicitly inform you that researchers nowadays are already trying to find a way to imitate photosynthesis process for energy generation. So, the next question is, how far are we to the goal?
In term of converting renewable natural resources, like sunlight, into energy we already have solar panels. Solar panels can convert sunlight into electricity which then used to fuel electric devices. But solar panel doesn’t have the efficiency of photosynthesis.
The panels only work best on a bright clear day, and it is still a problem for us to ‘force’ solar panel working at low light situation. Not only that, we cannot adequately store energy generated from solar panels, because there is too much energy seeping away over time.
Even though it doesn’t produce any harmful emission from the process of energy conversion, but solar panel still cannot be compared with photosynthesis. Maybe we are allowed to say that solar panel is ‘imperfect imitation’ of natural photosynthesis.
What’s interesting is, solar panel might not be the only ‘imperfect imitation’ of photosynthesis. Talking about how far we are to the goal of imitating photosynthesis, there are several other experiments of converting abundant natural resources into fuel or beneficial matters.
While ‘imperfect imitation’ might not satisfy you, but there are so many variations of artificial photosynthesis that researchers are working on. As mentioned before, all of them should be able to convert abundant natural resources into fuel or beneficial matters.
The first artificial photosynthesis variation works on splitting ocean water into hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon components using sunlight. This way, we can harvest two useful ‘emission’, hydrogen and oxygen.
Hydrogen can be used as fuel in a form of liquid hydrogen. This kind of fuel is said to have distinct advantage over batteries, because it doesn’t require much space and simply lighter than batteries. While oxygen is naturally beneficial to us, as we breathe it in.
Another variation of artificial photosynthesis is nitrogen-generating bacteria. Using the same principal as how leaves convert carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight into energy and oxygen, the bacteria is metabolically modified to do the same thing for nitrogen-based-compounds in the soil.
With the presence of the metabolically-modified bacteria in farmlands, farmers are no longer required to fertilize their soil since the bacteria will do it for them. This experiment might be able to solve world hunger in the future.
Even with such great beneficial features mentioned above, none of the examples of experiments mentioned above are near to perfect photosynthesis imitation. Imagine how great it would be if we succeed on imitating the process.
So, what’s actually the missing thing we need to complete photosynthesis imitation? We still don’t have the right catalyst to efficiently convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide (or other chemical compounds in its variations) into energy and oxygen (or other beneficial compounds if using different resource in the first place) like plants are able to do.
Plants have chloroplasts, organelles that conduct the process of photosynthesis, as the catalyst to convert all those resources into energy and oxygen. Since we cannot synthesize chloroplast, we need different catalyst to do the task.
Some of the catalysts worth to mention are manganese, dye-sensitized titanium oxide, and cobalt oxide. Those catalysts are able to some parts of the photosynthesis process, such as manganese is able to split water particle and titanium oxide is able to capture sunlight.
Researchers are now working on combining the beneficial characteristics of those catalyst and perfecting the whole chemical reaction process in the business. We might not be near the goal, but we can say that we are on the right track.
So, while the researchers are working on perfecting artificial photosynthesis process, why don’t we keep the natural ones exist? Up to nowadays, only trees can do the perfect photosynthesis process. Save trees, save perfection.