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.
Imagine eating a slice of cake for breakfast. It's deliciously indulgent, but instead of your blood sugar spiking, your body processes all that sweetness as a healthy high-protein meal. It may sound like sci-fi, but this scenario is not necessarily far off.
"People with diabetes could especially benefit because sweet proteins don't trigger a need for insulin."
An award-winning agtech startup called Amai is developing "sweet proteins," based on the molecular structure of naturally occuring exotic fruits. These new sugar substitutes could potentially replace artificial sweeteners and help people who are trying to curb their sugar intake. People with diabetes could especially benefit because sweet proteins don't trigger a need for insulin.
While there is a sweet protein currently on the market today called thaumatin, it's expensive, has a short shelf life, and is lacking in the taste department. But Amai's proteins taste 70 to 100 percent identical to the sweet ones found in nature. Once their molecular structure is designed through a sophisticated computing platform, they are made through fermentation, which is akin to brewing beer. These non-GMO proteins are over 10,000 times sweeter than sugar, which means much less needs to be produced and used.
Diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which are often linked to sugar overconsumption, have been on a major upswing over the last few decades, especially in the United States. According to the CDC, 100 million adults in the United States are now living with diabetes or prediabetes, which if not treated, often leads to type 2 diabetes within five years. By 2030, scientists predict cases of diabetes in the U.S. will increase by 54 percent. If sugar proteins like the type Amai is creating become widely available, these numbers could begin to decrease.
Amai's sweet proteins are still in the research and development stage, but the Israeli startup is raising significant funding that should help expedite the process. They're also substantially upping their production ability by expanding their facilities.
Will consumers be comfortable ingesting a lab-designed food product?
And in March, the USDA and FDA announced plans to regulate cell-cultured foods, the category in which these sugar proteins would fall, so Amai researchers are hopeful they'll have an easier path to approval once their product is market ready.
All this progress may sound promising, but Amai still has a long way to go before the reality of healthy cake becomes tangible. Some questions to consider: Will consumers be comfortable ingesting a lab-designed food product? Will it taste enough like real sugar?
And if some products and brands begin to adopt it, will it ever overtake the real thing in popularity and make a dent in diseases like diabetes and obesity? Only time, more research, and a lot more money will tell, but in the meantime, feel free to daydream about eating entire pints of ice cream without needing to hit the gym.