Thursday, December 21, 2017

Photosynthesis to the Rescue?

Every morning when the sun rises, millions of plants go to work converting solar energy to chemical energy, which they then use in the course of their lives for metabolism, growth, flowering, and so forth. We use it too, for we eat plants. So do our livestock, before we eat them. Even our fossil fuels started as photosynthesizing plants, as did plastics, and wood of course. Plants power the world, through clean renewable energy made from cheap abundant ingredients: water and carbon dioxide.
On a hot summer day in Kansas, millions of tiny chloroplast factories (upper right) are converting water and carbon dioxide into life-giving sugars and oxygen (source and source).
If plants can produce abundant cheap clean renewable energy, surely we clever humans can too. Bill Gates thinks so, as does the World Economic Forum (1). So do dozens of research groups currently working on artificial photosynthesis (AP):
“The benefits of artificial photosynthesis are numerous and include increased energy independence and efficient means of storing and dispatching of solar energy. Supporting the development of the foundational science and core technologies required for solar-fuel generation is the first step toward an investment in a future sustainable energy industry.” Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis
Artificial photosynthesis mimics photosynthesis in plants in a non-biological setting. Researchers are making good progress, but it probably will be at least a decade before you can buy an AP reactor.
Artificial photosynthesis in proposed twin-reactor system (Lee et al. 2013, modified)—not on Amazon just yet.
Photosynthesis is complex, but for this post, only the two basic steps are relevant: water splitting and carbon fixation. First water is split into hydrogen and oxygen, with oxygen released to the atmosphere. Next the hydrogen moves to the carbon fixation step. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is split, and carbon is combined with the hydrogen to make sugars, where energy is stored as chemical bonds. The sugars are broken down in respiration—providing energy for metabolism, growth, flowering, etc.—and carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere. The amount released is the same as that taken up in photosynthesis, so the overall process is carbon-neutral, and therefore “clean” (2) (3).
Basics of photosynthesis (source, modified).
Natural photosynthesis needs major tweaking to produce replacements for our fossil fuels. Sugars won’t do. And plants are inefficient at converting sunlight to chemical energy—only 0.1 to 8.0%, depending on temperature, type of light, and amount of carbon dioxide available. In contrast, mass-produced solar panels are 6 to 20% efficient. Researchers are addressing these limitations, and progress has accelerated recently thanks to new nano-scale methods and advanced materials.

Water splitting was achieved relatively early, and now is being improved in terms of cost, efficiency and durability. But the second basic step, carbon fixation, has taken much longer to replicate in the lab. Carbon dioxide must be split, and it’s an extremely stable compound. That’s why it accumulates in the atmosphere instead of breaking down. (Even if we were to switch completely to clean energy, the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere won’t go away without active removal.)

Until recently, artificial carbon fixation produced only useless soups of 1-carbon compounds. But things have changed. With nanotechnology, AP components now can be designed down to the level of atoms, providing fine-scale control over function. Within the last two years, multiple labs have been able to split carbon dioxide to produce multi-carbon compounds in pure form (e.g. Kim et al. 2017).
How to make copper catalysts that fix carbon better than anything found in nature! (Kim et al. 2017, modified).

We now know that artificial photosynthesis will work, but continued research is needed to improve performance, reduce costs, figure how how to build suitable reactors, and more. Even if AP emerges successfully from research, it still has to cross the aptly-named Valley of Death, where many new technologies die before reaching commercial viability.
Traditionally governments fund research. Venture capitalists inhabit the Valley of Death, investing in high-risk projects in the hopes that at least a few will be high-yield.
New breakthrough technologies like AP are referred to as “blue sky” research—too early to know which will succeed in the real world. So if we are going to expand and diversify our energy portfolio, and make the transition to 100% renewables, we must invest in many blue sky candidates. And we must do it soon, because it usually takes decades for new technology to be widely deployed.

“But why bother?” you ask. “We’re already transitioning to renewables—solar and wind.” You’re absolutely right. Renewables are increasing fast. But they aren’t keeping up with growth in energy demand. “Despite decades of progress, about 80% of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels—the same as in the 1970s” (Rathi 2017). Even worse, today’s renewables are inadequate to make a full transition away from fossil fuels. The biggest challenge is in manufacturing, which contributes 20% of global emissions. Heavy load transport (shipping, aviation, land freight), which contributes 10% of emissions, also is out of reach of today’s renewables, due battery limitations (4).

“But is technology the only solution?” That question came up repeatedly in Energy Security, a terrific class offered by the International Studies Department, University of Wyoming (5). Whenever someone suggested conservation instead of technology, I flashed back on the late 60s and early 70s when Baby Boomers were conserving energy to save the planet. We even agreed to drive just 55 mph on the highways. Now we’re mega-consumers, contributing to fossil fuel’s relentless growth. Fossil fuels make for a wonderful life, and humans are not inclined to give them up, even those who agree that the amount of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) being added to the atmosphere will warm the climate enough to destabilize the world on a grand scale.

It seems we must switch to renewable energy, not just to avoid climate change, but also to deal with the inevitable dwindling supply of fossil fuels. To do this, we need new innovative technologies … soon.
“The world has made remarkable progress in wind and solar over the past decade, and these technologies will continue to play an important role in our zero-carbon energy mix. … But because the scale of the challenge of providing reliable and affordable power without contributing to climate change is so vast, and the future energy needs are so great, we need to explore as many viable solutions as possible.” – Bill Gates, 2016


(1) Gates considers artificial photosynthesis to be one of three breakthrough technologies “that could solve the energy problem.” The Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund selected AP as one of seven innovation challenges, and the World Economic Forum and Scientific American included it on the list of “Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2017.”

(2) “Clean” does not mean that photosynthesis is carbon-free, nor it does it necessarily remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a net basis. Photosynthesis is sometimes mistakenly referred to as carbon-negative, probably because forests are widely recognized as Negative Emissions Technology (NET). Trees sequester carbon for hundreds of years (or longer if used for building materials) before death and decomposition return release it. Therefore on a human timescale, trees remove carbon from the atmosphere.

(3) Technically fossil fuels are carbon-neutral, for they originate as sugars produced through photosynthesis. Anaerobic fermentation of accumulated dead plant tissue produced the hydrocarbons we burn as fuel, releasing carbon “back” into the atmosphere. However, millions of years are required to produce hydrocarbons, much too slow to take up the carbon released in burning them. On a human timescale, the net effect is increased atmospheric carbon dioxide.

(4) Elon Musk of Tesla has challenged the view that current battery technology is unsuitable for large-scale applications. On November 16, 2017, he unveiled a prototype of an electric semi-truck able to travel 500 miles between charges at $1.26 per mile, compared with $1.51 for diesel. Skeptics immediately questioned his claims, but advance orders are coming in, starting with Walmart (15 trucks). Two weeks later, Tesla installed a battery at a wind farm in the state of South Australia, expected to power 30,000 homes. These batteries are immense. The semi-truck battery underlies the entire cab; the wind farm battery is the size of an American football field. It will be some time before either can be evaluated—at least a year for the trucks.

(5) I took advantage of UW’s policy of free courses for senior citizens. My final paper was about innovation in renewable energy, with artificial photosynthesis as a case study.


Bourzac, K. 2016 (November 21). “Will the Artificial Leaf Sprout?” Chemical and Engineering News. (accessed September 30, 2017).

Gates, B. 2016b (December 12). “A New Model for Investing in Energy Innovation.” Gatesnotes. (accessed December 1, 2017).

IRENA. 2017a. “Accelerating the Energy Transition through Innovation.” International Renewable Energy Agency. (accessed October 30, 2017).

Kim, D., et al. 2017. “Copper Nanoparticle Ensembles for Selective Electroreduction of CO2 to C2–C3 Products.” PNAS 114: 10560-10565.

Rathi, A. 2017 (December 4). “Humanity’s Fight against Climate Change is Failing. One Technology can Change that.” Quartz. (accessed December 15, 2017).


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Ken. Not my usual material, but I was determined to dual-purpose that paper!

  2. I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for the explanation of AP and other options.

    1. Thanks, Beth. I wasn't sure readers would enjoy something so geeky, but it's interesting to me because it sounds promising. We need something!

  3. Super interesting, thanks Hollis! First time I read about AP; sounds promising, I hope it will make it over the death valley.
    And Happy holidays of course :) and Happy New year!

  4. Thanks so much, Gabriela. And best wishes to you in this year to come!

  5. I'd not heard of this idea either.

  6. Great post! Very insightful! Thank you, Hollis. Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks, Jack ... best wishes to you too. Sorry I didn't catch this earlier ... snuck thru somehow with no notification, do you have special powers? (beside photo/geo)