Since the beginning of life on Earth, plants have been naturally converting sunlight into energy. This photosynthesis process that's effortless for them has been anything but for scientists who have been trying to achieve artificial photosynthesis for the last half a century with the goal of creating a carbon-neutral fuel. Such a fuel could be a gamechanger — rather than putting CO2 back into the atmosphere like traditional fuels do, it would take CO2 out of the atmosphere and convert it into usable energy.
If given the option between a carbon-neutral fuel at the gas station and a fuel that produces carbon dioxide in spades -- and if costs and effectiveness were equal --who wouldn't choose the one best for the planet? That's the endgame scientists are after. A consumer switch to clean fuel could have a huge impact on our global CO2 emissions.
Up until this point, the methods used to make liquid fuel from atmospheric CO2 have been expensive, not efficient enough to really get off the ground, and often resulted in unwanted byproducts. But now, a new technology may be the key to unlocking the full potential of artificial photosynthesis. At the very least, it's a step forward and could help make a dent in atmospheric CO2 reduction.
"It's an important breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis," says Qian Wang, a researcher in the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge University and lead author on a recent study published in Nature about an innovation she calls "photosheets."
The latest version of the artificial leaf directly produces liquid fuel, which is easier to transport and use commercially.
These photosheets convert CO2, sunlight, and water into a carbon-neutral liquid fuel called formic acid without the aid of electricity. They're made of semiconductor powders that absorb sunlight. When in the presence of water and CO2, the electrons in the powders become excited and join with the CO2 and protons from the water molecules, reducing the CO2 in the process. The chemical reaction results in the production of formic acid, which can be used directly or converted to hydrogen, another clean energy fuel.
In the past, it's been difficult to reduce CO2 without creating a lot of unwanted byproducts. According to Wang, this new conversion process achieves the reduction and fuel creation with almost no byproducts.
The Cambridge team's new technology is a first and certainly momentous, but they're far from the only team to have produced fuel from CO2 using some form of artificial photosynthesis. More and more scientists are aiming to perfect the method in hopes of producing a truly sustainable, photosynthetic fuel capable of lowering carbon emissions.
Thanks to advancements in nanoscience, which has led to better control of materials, more successes are emerging. A team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, used gold nanoparticles as the photocatalysts in their process.
"My group demonstrated that you could actually use gold nanoparticles both as a light absorber and a catalyst in the process of converting carbon dioxide to hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane and propane fuels," says professor Prashant Jain, co-author of the study. Not only are gold nanoparticles great at absorbing light, they don't degrade as quickly as other metals, which makes them more sustainable.
That said, Jain's team, like every other research team working on artificial photosynthesis including the Cambridge team, is grappling with efficiency issues. Jain says that all parts of the process need to be optimized so the reaction can happen as quickly as possible.
"You can't just improve one [aspect], because that can lead to a decrease in performance in some other aspects," Jain explains.
The Cambridge team is currently experimenting with a range of catalysts to improve their device's stability and efficiency. Virgil Andrei, who is working on an artificial leaf design that was developed at Cambridge in 2019, was recently able to improve the performance and selectivity of the device. Now the leaf's solar-to-CO2 energy conversion efficiency is 0.2%, twice its previous efficiency.
The latest version also directly produces liquid fuel, which is easier to transport and use commercially.
In determining a method of fuel production's efficiency, one must consider how sustainable it is at every stage. That involves calculating whenever excess energy is needed to complete a step. According to Jain, in order to use CO2 for fuel production, you have to condense the CO2, which takes energy. And on the fuel production side, once the chemical reaction has created your byproducts, they need to be separated, which also takes energy.
To be truly sustainable, each part of the conversion system also needs to be durable. If parts need to be replaced often, or regularly maintained, that counts against it. Then you have to account for the system's reuse cycle. If you extract CO2 from the environment and convert it into fuel that's then put into a fuel cell, it's going to release CO2 at the other end. In order to create a fully green, carbon-neutral fuel source, that same amount of CO2 needs to be trapped and reintroduced back into the fuel conversion system.
"The cycle continues, and at each point, you will see a loss in efficiency, and depending on how much you [may also] see a loss in yield," says Jain. "And depending on what those efficiencies are at each one of those points will determine whether or not this process can be sustainable."
The science is at least a decade away from offering a competitive sustainable fuel option at scale. Streamlining a process to mimic what plants have perfected over billions of years is no small feat, but an ever-growing community of researchers using rapidly advancing technology is driving progress forward.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby