Seeing how plants split water could provide key to our future energy needs

The possibility of using the Earth's abundant supply of water as a cheap source of hydrogen is a step closer thanks to researchers from Imperial College London. By mimicking the method plants use to split water, researchers say that a highly energy efficient way to form cheap supplies of hydrogen fuel may be possible in the future.

Reporting online in the journal Science today Imperial researchers reveal the fine detail of the protein complex that drives photosynthesis - the process that converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic matter and oxygen (O2) by using sunlight to split water (H2O).

Using X-ray crystallography, the researchers describe for the first time the mechanism that underpins the photosynthetic water-splitting reaction. By analysing these findings the researchers believe it may be possible to learn how to recreate the process on an industrial scale, allowing hydrogen to be manufactured as a fuel.

Professor Jim Barber of Imperial's Department of Biological Sciences explains:
"Without photosynthesis life on Earth would not exist as we know it. Oxygen derived from this process is part of the air we breathe and maintains the ozone layer needed to protect us from UV radiation. Now hydrogen also contained in water could be one of the most promising energy sources for the future. Unlike fossil fuels it's highly efficient, low polluting and is mobile so it can be used for power generation in remote regions where it's difficult to access electricity.

"But the problem is hydrogen doesn't exist on Earth by itself. Instead it combines with other elements such as oxygen to form water, or with carbon to form methane, coal and petroleum. However, water is very stable and for this reason cannot be used directly as a fuel. Researchers have investigated using electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen but today it costs ten times as much as natural gas, and is three times as expensive as gasoline.


Contact: Judith H Moore
Imperial College London

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