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The quest for unlimited, renewable, energy

Lab equipment for experimenting on semi-artificial photosyntheses.
Experimental two-electrode setup showing the photoelectrochemical cell illuminated with simulated solar light
Credit: Cambridge University – Katarzyna Sokół

Our quest for unlimited renewable energy is actually a quest for methods (practical and affordable) to tap onto the Sun light bathing our Planet, every single day. This involves capturing it, converting it, storing and transporting. All of these aspects have to be addressed.

We have created (and applied) many technologies but there is no silver bullet out there (at least so far).We are not alone. Actually, algae and later plants have worked out ways to tame sunlight into chemical energy (that is about capturing, converting and storing, they are not interested in transportation since they are using it on the spot!).

As many researchers have been working to develop and apply technologies (photovoltaic, solar mirrors to heat sodium reservoirs….) other have been looking at how Nature has solved the problem. Well what they discovered was not encouraging. Nature, as always happen, is never overdoing things, it does what it takes to barely satisfy the local needs.

Plant photosyntheses is converting just 1 to 2% of the energy carried by solar rays. Some researchers are looking into ways to improve plants’ photosyntheses effectiveness by tweaking with the plants genome: in a way they are trying to perfect Nature’s work (this actually is a distorted vision: Nature did a perfect job in selecting working methods fitting a plant need in that particular ambient. It is us who want to have that plant growing in a different place and therefore need to increase its photosyntheses effectiveness).

Other researchers, such as the one at Cambridge University in UK, are wondering if we can replicate, and perfect the photosyntheses process for our need of energy. Some futurists go as far as imagining the possibility to provide photosyntheses capability to our skin, to “eat” sunlight through the skin.

The team at Cambridge has been able to create a semi artificial photosyntheses apparatus. The “semi-artificial” refers to the use of both natural and artificial processes and components (watch the clip). In particular they have discovered that algae have the potential to produce an enzyme, hydrogenase, that can transform a proton into an hydrogen atom (by capturing an electron). This enzyme was probably used billions of years ago and then went dormant probably because the algae found they no longer needed it. Now the researchers have woken up this enzyme and are using it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen (thus storing energy in that form).

According to the researchers this possibility of fine tuning chemical processes by mixing bio and artificial component will enable the development of new ways to capture, convert and store energy. What about the transport part?

Well, that is not directly addressed, but if we will be able to harvest the required energy on the spot, who cares about transporting it?

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.