A new method called reverse photosynthesis is set to revolutionize the industrial production of chemicals and fuels by using sunlight to convert plant biomass into usable biofuel.
Photosynthesis is a process by which plants, algae and other organisms absorb sunlight and convert it into chemical energy, often resulting in vital products such as oxygen.
Much like photosynthesis, this new reverse method - developed by researchers from the University of Copenhagen - collects sunlight through the plant's chlorophyll, which is a green pigment found in leaves. But instead of helping plants grow, reverse photosynthesis actually helps break down plant material.
The idea is that a given amount of this biomass can be combined with a natural enzyme called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase, which is found in certain fungi and bacteria. Then, 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. And not only does this method increase production speed, but it also has the potential to reduce pollution, as conventional methods utilize petroleum and natural gas for making chemicals.
"This is a game changer, one that could transform the industrial production of fuels and chemicals, thus serving to reduce pollution significantly," said Claus Felby, a professor from the University of Copenhagen who led the research. "It has always been right beneath our noses, and yet no one has ever taken note: 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. In other words, direct sunlight drives chemical processes. The immense energy in solar light can be used so that processes can take place without additional energy inputs."
Researchers also noted that the key to successful reverse photosynthesis is using the energy of sunlight itself to drive the chemical processes. By harnessing the power of the sun, reactions that would otherwise take 24 hours or longer can be achieved in just 10 minutes.
"By using the sun, we can produce biofuels and biochemicals for things like plastics - faster, at lower temperatures and with enhanced energy-efficiency," added David Cannella, a fellow researcher and discoverer. "Some of the reactions, which currently take 24 hours, can be achieved in just 10 minutes by using the sun."
However, further research is required before the process can be utilized at large scale.
Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.