Sustainable Energy

Power plant: High-tech photosynthesis

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
High-tech photosynthesis

A Florida researcher has made a remarkable discovery that could be a sustainable energy game-changer: a synthetic material that mimics plants by using sunlight to produce oxygen.

The material, discovered by Jose L. Mendoza-Cortes, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Florida State University, is able to capture sunlight and convert water into oxygen and hydrogen. His findings were published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry.

If you can recall your high-school biology classes, plants use the energy of the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen in a process called photosynthesis - a process that is essential for life on earth.

Mendoza-Cortes made his discovery when working with birnessite, also known as manganese oxide. His findings were reported in The Journal of Physical Chemistry.

"What we found is that when we go deeper into the material is that we can actually use it… for splitting water, for converting water into hydrogen and oxygen with the help of some electricity," he told CNBC in a phone interview.

Mendoza-Cortes explained that birnessite is made up of layers, and that when it consists of only one layer it is able to trap sunlight at very fast rates.

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"It's very interesting because… (with) just one layer, now you're able to trap sunlight," he said. "In theory, you will just put the single layer… under the sun," he went on to add.

"It will… substitute the electricity, so it will help you to break that water, just by being exposed to the sun."

"That's why we call it artificial photosynthesis: because it's trying to replicate what nature does," Mendoza-Cortes said.

"It's just that instead of producing carbohydrates – which is what every single plant on the planet does – what it does is produce hydrogen, which is a form of fuel that you can use… for example for fuel cells in cars."

Commenting about his research on the Florida State website, Mendoza-Cortes explained that the source he has discovered is theoretically self-sustaining, while its impact on the environment will be minimal because no carbon dioxide or other waste will be generated.

In terms of future applications of the material, Mendoza-Cortes added that homeowners could potentially install it on their roofs to generate hydrogen that could be used for heating.