Hydrogen is a strong contender to the generation-next clean and green fuel. Scientists are always trying to eliminate or minimize its drawbacks and maximize its benefits. They want to get rid of the intensive, high-energy process used when we need hydrogen as fuel. Because this process poses hurdle in the progress of hydrogen as clean and reliable alternative fuel. Scientists from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are looking towards the wonder known as photosynthesis for some answers. Photosynthesis is the process from which plants generate energy and food in the presence of sunlight. Scientists think that photosynthesis might help providing answers so that we can utilize hydrogen as a fuel.
Barry Bruce is the leader of the project team and a professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology at UT Knoxville. He discovered that the inner processes of the photosynthetic steps can be isolated from certain algae and, when ably assisted by a platinum catalyst, those algae would be able to generate a steady supply of hydrogen in the presence of sunlight. Bruce, who is also holding the position as the associate director for UT Knoxville’s Sustainable Energy and Education Research Center, explains that human beings are deriving their fair share of energy from photosynthesis, though indirectly.
Even millions of years ago, photosynthesis was a major source of energy for plant matters. Scientists are making an effort to shorten the process of photosynthesis. That’s why biomass fuels are so popular among scientists. They’ve been trying to shorten the process by creating biomass fuels that harvest plants and covert their hydrocarbons into ethanol orbiodiesel.
Bruce shares his opinion, “Biofuel as many people think of it now — harvesting plants and converting their woody material into sugars which get distilled into combustible liquids — probably cannot replace gasoline as a major source of fuel. We found that our process is more direct and has the potential to create a much larger quantity of fuel using much less energy, which has a wide range of benefits.”
Bruce’s method has some major advantages. It eliminates two steps of the process and shortens the cycle while using plants’ solar conversion abilities. How does one utilize the solar energy via plants? Generally plants exploit solar energy, grow and reproduce. In the process they grow old and die and get converted into fossil fuel. The next important step is energy. We need sufficient amount of energy to cultivate, harvest and process plant material into biofuel. If somehow these two steps could be eliminated then we can directly use the plant or algae’s built-in solar system to create clean fuel. If applied commercially, it has the potential to become a major discovery.
Other scientists too were putting in efforts to harness energy by using the process of photosynthesis as hydrogen source. But they were unable to find a suitable method where photosynthesis occurs at a high temperature. Bruce and his colleagues took a very intelligent decision. They went for an alga known as blue-green algae with thermophilic qualities. Process of photosynthesis can take place in these algae at a temperature of 55 degrees C, or 131 degrees F. Arid deserts contain the more or less same temperature where intensity of sunlight is quite high. This process would be more fruitful if carried out in an arid desert region. They also found the process was more than 10 times more efficient as the temperature increased.