London: British scientists seeking to tap more efficient forms of solar power are exploring how to mimic the way plants transform sunlight into energy and produce hydrogen to fuel vehicles.
They will join other researchers around the world studying artificial photosynthesis as governments seek to cut greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.
The research will use synthetic biology to replicate the process by which plants concentrate solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which is then released into the atmosphere.
“We will build a system for artificial photosynthesis by placing tiny solar panels on microbes,” said lead researcher Julea Butt at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
“These will harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well-advanced.”
Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel which can power vehicles or be transformed into electricity.
“We imagine that our photocatalysts will prove versatile and that with slight modification they will be able to harness solar energy for the manufacture of carbon-based fuels, drugs and fine chemicals,” she added.
The £800,000 project will be undertaken by scientists from UEA and Cambridge and Leeds universities.
The scientists believe copying photosynthesis could be more efficient in harnessing the sun’s energy than existing solar converters.
Many countries have deployed at least one kind of renewable energy, such as solar, wind power or biofuels, or use a mixture to see which becomes most competitive with fossil fuels.
But as carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, some experts argue more extreme methods are needed to keep the average rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius this century, a threshold scientists say would avoid the most harmful effects of climate change.
“Many renewable energy supplies, such as sunlight, wind and the waves, remain largely untapped resources. This is mainly due to the challenges that exist in converting these energy forms into fuels from which energy can be released on demand,” said Butt.
Some of the more extreme methods which are being studied are controversial, such as removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and geo-engineering techniques such as blocking sunlight using artificial clouds or mirrors in space.
Such technology is far from being employed on a large scale and the costs are enormous.
Critics argue these techniques manipulate the climate, are too costly, take too long to prove and governments should concentrate on more mainstream renewable energy sources.
Last year, British scientists abandoned a £1.6 million experiment to test the possibility of spraying particles into the upper atmosphere to stem global warming.