Cheaper, Cleaner, and Safer: How Hydrogen Could Replace Oil

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Source: Joel Saget/Getty Images

Joel Saget/Getty Images

Scientists have been taking cues from nature for years, but few breakthroughs are potentially this important. In an effort to develop clean, renewable energy sources, a team from the Australian National University has successfully duplicated one of the more crucial steps in photosynthesis, the process in which plants actively turn sunlight into energy.

Why’s it a big deal? Well, it could ultimately open the door to harnessing the process for energy cultivation.

If scientists are able to successfully take the photosynthesis process and apply it to industrial biological systems, sunlight could be used to manufacture hydrogen, which could then be used as fuel. Hydrogen is already used as a fuel in many instances, and if applied on a large scale, it could serve as a replacement for petroleum products — all the while contributing no new carbon to the atmosphere. Not only are the two main components required for photosynthesis available in wide abundance, but they are also cheap.

“Water is abundant and so is sunlight. It is an exciting prospect to use them to create hydrogen, and do it cheaply and safely,” Dr. Kastoori Hingorani, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis in the ANU Research School of Biology told Science Daily.

Not only that, but the process itself is sustainable for the long-term. Since there is no shortage of water or sunlight, if the photosynthesis process is completely harnessed, it could provide energy indefinitely.

“That carbon-free cycle is essentially indefinitely sustainable. Sunlight is extraordinarily abundant, water is everywhere — the raw materials we need to make the fuel. And at the end of the usage cycle, it goes back to water,” said co-researcher professor Ron Pace.  “It’s the beginning of a whole suite of possibilities, such as creating a highly efficient fuel, or to trapping atmospheric carbon.”

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