Photosynthesis, as you are probably aware, is Kind Of A Big Deal. It's the process by which plants, algae and other organisms convert sunlight into chemical energy.
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Now scientists at the University of Copenhagen say they've figured out reverse photosynthesis - using sunlight to convert plant biomass into usable fuel. The process could radically transform the industrial production of plastics and chemicals, the researchers say.
They reported their study this week in the journal "Nature Communications."
It works like this: A given amount of biomass – straw or wood, for instance – is combined with an enzyme called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase, found in certain fungi and bacteria.
When chlorophyll is added and the entire mixture is exposed to sunlight, sugar molecules in the biomass naturally break down into smaller constituents. The resulting biochemicals can then be more easily converted into fuel and plastics.
The key is using the very energy of sunlight itself to drive the chemical processes. By leveraging the power of the sun, reactions that would otherwise take 24 hours or longer can be achieved in just 10 minutes, researchers say.
That means faster production, lower temperatures and enhanced energy efficiency in industrial production.
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"It has always been right beneath our noses, and yet no one has ever taken note," writes lead researcher Claus Felby in press materials accompanying the research publication.
"Photosynthesis by way of the sun doesn't just allow things to grow, the same principles can be applied to break plant matter down, allowing the release of chemical substances. The immense energy in solar light can be used so that processes can take place without additional energy inputs," Felby said.
The study is the result of a multidisciplinary collaboration at the Copenhagen Plant Science Centre involving researchers in plant science, biotechnology and chemistry.
The Copenhagen team is rather bullish on the project, at any rate, saying the technology's potential is the greatest they've seen in years: "This is a game changer, one that could transform the industrial production of fuels and chemicals," Felby says.