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Berkeley Scientists Use Artificial Photosynthesis To Create Energy

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.

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