A natural process that's crucial to life is inspiring new cutting-edge technology

Photosynthesis is inspiring cutting edge research

The natural world is full of wonders.

One such marvel is photosynthesis, a process in which plants use light energy from the sun to convert water and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen.

At San Diego State University (SDSU), researchers are looking to develop what is known as "artificial photosynthesis."

Jing Gu, an assistant professor at SDSU, told CNBC that they wanted "to learn from nature and want to mimic what nature does."

Gu added that her team wanted to convert what she described as "not so useful chemicals" into useful ones. One example she highlighted was the conversion of water into hydrogen as a fuel.

According to the European Commission, hydrogen is an energy carrier with "great potential for clean, efficient power in stationary, portable and transport applications."

Gu said that her team were using semi-conductor devices to directly capture solar light and at the same time produce hydrogen. These semi-conductor devices are boosted by the use of special catalysts.

"The major advantage of this process is (that) we use the source of solar energy rather than use the source of fossil fuels to produce hydrogen," she added.

A number of sources — from fossil fuels and solar to geothermal — can produce hydrogen using a range of methods, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. These include biological processes, thermochemical processes and electrolytic processes, the DOE says.

The catalyst is a crucial part of the process being worked on at SDSU. "If there is a big mountain which we need to climb in order to produce hydrogen, what (the) catalyst does is lower the height of the mountain so we can climb (it)… in a much easier way," Gu said. In this way, the process can be sped up.

The semi conductors' exposure to sunlight and salty water can cause problems. With this in mind, the SDSU team is trying to protect the semi-conductors through the use of "thin film metal oxide layers."

According to Tony Trammel, a graduate student at the university, these layers are deposited uniformly onto the surface of a semi-conductor, preventing its degradation and increasing its stability within the system.