Artificial photosynthesis

I don’t normally get excited about “Advances in Science” papers, but everything now and then it’s fun to let your imagination play.

Thus, I recommend this article about an MIT chemist named Nocera whose team discovered a cheap, non-caustic, room-temperature electrolysis process that resembles photosynthesis.

Then suddenly (and it was quite sudden), his postdoc discovers a catalyst that can produce oxygen from water, and can do it at room temperature, with cheap materials, in neutral water, and without using huge amounts of energy. In other words, he’s found a catalyst that can do one of the steps in photosynthesis the same way plants can do it. This was one of the biggest challenges chemists in the field had been facing, and he’d solved it.

Be sure to read the comments were the author of the article clarifies one or two things.

They’re still one to three orders of magnitude away from being real-life useful, but, well, it’s pleasant to think of the possibilities.


  1. Bernie

    You are right it is very intriguing – the whole field is replete with possibilities. Mimicking nature is a pretty good approach though it was of marginal use in the history of flight. Yet, the basic question raised in the article holds – simpler is better and solving the storage problem is equally critical.
    The other intriguing aspect of the article is how surprised Nocera was about what was happening, even though he was consciously trying for the effects he created. Is this another example of your favorite aphorism?

  2. Noblesse Oblige

    If you make O2, you also make H2 and that could be important. But the problem with all water splitting reactions is that they are inefficient. Catalysts merely speed up reactions; they don’t change the fundamental thermodyamic end points. Photosynthesis is inefficient (~1% of incoming solar energy), but plants can afford to use lots of space; we cannot. We cannot afford the luxury of using huge amounts of land to make an energy source that can come from under the ground in much higher concentrated form.

  3. I notice this quote from the comments after the original article.

    “Nocera keeps coming up with tiny results and gigantic claims”;

    This suggests a history and therefore methinks this requires further investigation.

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