The ongoing quest for renewable energy takes a lot of cues from nature, and here’s one more. A team of scientists from Denmark’s University of Copenhagen has developed a “reverse photosynthesis” process that turns biomass into fuel using the sun’s energy. It’s essentially the opposite of what plants do by converting sunlight into chemical energy – and it could lead to new industrialized forms of clean energy that give fossil fuels a run for their money.
Biomass, typically in the form of straw or wood, can be converted to fuel through a variety of processes, but many are complicated, expensive, or have some unwanted side effects. The reverse photosynthesis process developed at the Copenhagen Plant Science Center is much cleaner, thanks to nature’s simplicity. An enzyme called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase is added to the biomass, followed by chlorophyll. When exposed to sunlight, sugar molecules in the biomass begin breaking down into chemicals that are easier to convert into fuel, or even bioplastics.
The process is efficient, too. It takes as little as 10 minutes of sun exposure to accomplish what takes other methods 24 hours to do. “Photosynthesis by way of the sun doesn’t just allow things to grow, the same principles can be applied to break plant matter down, allowing the release of chemical substances. The immense energy in solar light can be used so that processes can take place without additional energy inputs,” lead researcher Claus Felby said in a statement. “This is a game changer, one that could transform the industrial production of fuels and chemicals.”
The research team published their findings this week in the journal Nature Communications.