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Berkeley Scientists Use Artificial Photosynthesis To Create Energy

Researchers at UC Berkeley are trying to simulate how leaves turn energy from the sun into energy they can use.

Feng Jiao and Heinz Frei stand in a lab

Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab Public Affairs

Feng Jiao (left) and Heinz Frei, chemists with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division, have been investigating metal oxide catalysts for the production of liquid fuels through artificial photosynthesis.

Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab Public Affairs

Researchers at UC Berkeley are trying to simulate how leaves turn energy from the sun into energy they can use. Graham Fleming, a professor of chemistry, is trying to understand how plants are so good at what they do.

Lauren Sommer, a science correspondent from NPR member station KQED said that scientists don’t really understand the chemistry beyond photosynthesis, the process through which plants make energy from sunlight.

Perfect Efficiency

“It’s still a mystery because it’s so complex,” Sommer said. “A big question scientists are trying to answer is about efficiency: How plants can take light and translate that into energy with almost perfect efficiency.”

“Perfect efficiency” means that when plants absorb light, they use it almost perfectly without losing any energy to heat, this is something that humans haven’t been able to achieve when constructing solar cells.

Solar cells are most commonly made out of silicon, and when sunlight hits them, electricity is being created by the silicon cells. So we’re getting electricity from sunlight.

Plants don’t do exactly the same thing, according to Sommer. “They absorb the sunlight, but through a lot of complicated steps, they actually make sugar molecules out of that energy and they use those kinds of molecules for energy in order to function.”

Early Stages

This technology is still in its early stages, but the long term goal of this research is to be able to use artificial photosynthesis to create transportation fuels for humans.

“A lot like the way the plants were making sugar molecules out of that energy,” Sommer said, ” we’d be making different kinds of molecules out of that energy, except they would be transportation fuels.”

The Flemming lab is working in cooperation with Heinz Frei from Lawerence-Berkeley National Lab. While Flemming is working on artificial photosynthesis, Frei is trying to make leaves out of manmade materials.

Learn More

For more about Flemming and Frei’s research, listen to Lauren Sommer’s original piece filed for KQED’s Quest.

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer was in the company of foodies for most of her formative years. She spent all of her teens working at her town's natural food co-op in South Dakota, and later when she moved to Minneapolis, worked as a produce maven for the nation's longest running collectively-managed food co-op. In 2006, she had the distinct pleasure (and pain) of participating the vendanges, or grape harvest, in the Beaujolais terroire of France, where she developed her compulsion to snip off grape clusters wherever they may hang. In the spring of 2008, Megan interned on NPR's Science Desk in Washington, D.C., where she aided in the coverage of science, health and food policy stories. She joined Indiana Public Media in June, 2009.

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