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Plants convert sunlight into energy every day – and researchers have long studied ways to replicate the process to develop renewable sources of fuel. Nate Lewis is a Chemistry professor at Caltech University and the Scientific Director of the Department of Defense’s “Energy Innovation Hub,” which is seeking to perfect artificial photosynthesis to provide liquid fuel for the 40 percent of large vehicles that can’t be powered with electricity.

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Speaking with Physorg, Lewis laments how inefficiently plants absorb sunlight to produce energy. They aren’t dark enough to absorb as much energy as they should (like black photovoltaic cells) and they operate with a measly 10 percent efficiency rate. That’s not good enough to produce enough energy for a rapidly growing, modern society. Plus, photosynthesis involves a mesmerizing series of complex chemical reactions that we still don’t completely understand. Still, Lewis is determined that the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) will find the clue.

JCAP aims to produce a fuel that is as energy-dense as gasoline but comes with none of the negative environmental feedbacks. That means zero greenhouse gas emissions and zero chemicals. In fact, they intend to produce this liquid fuel using small black panels that can be scaled up, water, sunlight and carbon dioxide and nothing else. This will require figuring out which catalysts they can use and other complicated steps, yet they hope to have a proof of concept by 2015.

Via Physorg