Man-made photosynthesis to boost food output

Photosynthesis, one of the most powerful biological processes on earth, permits plants to convert solar energy into food and fuel, but with only one percent efficiency.

Richard Cogdell, professor at the University of Glasgow is trying to improve its productivity by creating an artificial 'leaf' to convert solar energy into liquid fuel.
Cogdell explains: "The sun gives its energy away for free but making use of it is tricky.

We can use solar panels to make electricity but it's intermittent and difficult to store. What we are trying to do is take the energy from the sun and trap it so that it can be used when it is needed most."

The researchers hope to use a chemical reaction similar to photosynthesis but in an artificial system. Plants take solar energy, concentrate it and use it to split apart water into hydrogen and oxygen, according to a Glasglow statement.

The oxygen is released and the hydrogen is locked into a fuel. The latest research aims to use synthetic biology to replicate the process.

Cogdell added: "We are working to devise an analogous robust chemical system that could replicate photosynthesis artificially on a grand scale. This artificial leaf would create solar collectors that produce a fuel, as opposed to electricity."

The artificial system could also improve on natural photosynthesis to make better use of the sun's energy. By stripping back photosynthesis to a level of basic reactions, much higher levels of energy conversion could be possible.

Ultimately, success in this research could allow the development of a sustainable carbon neutral economy arresting the increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning.

Howard Griffiths, professor from the University of Cambridge, is also hoping to enhance the potential of photosynthesis by focusing on an enzyme called RuBisCO.

It's a key enzyme in photosynthesis that allows plants to use atmospheric carbon dioxide to create energy-rich molecules, such as simple sugars.

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