Will artificial photosynthesis to cope with the climate crisis?

Plants are the lungs of the planet, but they are struggling to cope with growing carbon dioxide emissions and deforestation. However, engineers are extending their helping hand, empowering them with new technologies and creating artificial substitutes, which will help them to clean our atmosphere. Recently Imperial College London, which is one of the leading engineering schools in the UK, has announced that, in conjunction with startup Arborea creates the first draft of the BioSolar system for rearing Leaf — in fact, the artificial leaves.

Arborea is developing a huge structure, similar to solar panels, which are microscopic plants and can be installed on buildings or in open areas. Plants absorb light and carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, removing greenhouse gases from the air and producing organic material that can be recycled for recovery of valuable food additives such as omega-3 fatty acids.

The idea of growing algae for the production of useful materials is not new, but the goal of Arborea is to make it available and flexible. The traditional approach is to grow algae in open ponds, which are less efficient and open to contamination, or in photobioreactors, which usually require a CO2 supply, instead of obtain it out of the air, and can be expensive to operate.

Details about how this technology solves the problems with the supply of nutrients and harvesting is not enough. The company claims that it can remove carbon dioxide as fast as 100 trees using the surface area of a single tree, but there is no published research proving this, and it is difficult to compare the surface area of the flat panels with the surface of a complex object such as a tree. If you smooth out every inch of the surface of the wood, the area will be quite large.

However, the ability to install these panels directly on buildings may become a promising way to absorb the huge amount of CO2 produced in our cities and transportation industry. And Arborea is not the only one trying to lend a helping hand to the plants.

Artificial photosynthesis

For decades scientists have worked on ways of using light activated catalysts to split water into oxygen and hydrogen fuel, and in recent years attempts have been made to combine it with other processes to produce hydrogen and carbon from CO2 various products.

In particular, in 2016, scientists from Harvard have shown that the catalysts that break down water can be supplemented by bacteria, which combine the resulting hydrogen with CO2 and create oxygen, biomass, fuel or other useful products. This approach was more effective than plants to transform CO2 into fuel, and were built using cheap materials, but turning it into a commercially viable technology will take time.

Simulation of biology

Not everyone wants to emulate biology or borrow it, trying to suck CO2 from the atmosphere. In recent times invest in startups working on the technology of direct air capture, which earlier was not used due to the extremely large energy consumption and space requirements. The inevitable impending climate crisis changes everything.

Most of the approaches focus on the use of concentrated CO2 for the production of synthetic fuel or other useful products to create a revenue stream that will enhance the commercial viability of these ideas. But we tend to go beyond the safe greenhouse gas, so more attention is shifting to technology that does not involve carbon.

This means the capture of CO2 from air and its subsequent long-term storage. One way may be growing large amounts of biomass, and then her burial, imitating the process that originally created the fossil fuels. Or carbon dioxide is injected into deep underground wells.

The first option requires unnecessarily large areas of land, and the second — huge amounts of scarce and expensive renewable energy. Artificial photosynthesis could around these problems, because it is five times more efficient than its natural counterpart, and can be cheaper than injection.

But can this technology evolve fast enough to be able to deploy a large-scale and in time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, is still unknown. Reducing emissions is, of course, is a more reliable way of solving this problem. But it may be that we will see plants of the cyborg in the neighborhood.

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