For all but the most enthusiastic lovers of plants and science, photosynthesis is no more than the tiresome subject that we all have to study in high school biology class. However, it is much more than that, namely the process by which plants turn carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight into energy, is essential for life on earth.
In the process, these photoautotrophs release oxygen into the environment as a waste product. Thus, the process of photosynthesis not only filters carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere, but also creates the energy that makes life for mammals possible and replenishes oxygen in the atmosphere.
Since we, as humans, already rely on the process of photosynthesis for our very existence, then why not try to replicate the process to solve the major problem, that is our energy crisis? The idea is not novel, but advances in recent years have taken the concept from science fiction to a very real possibility.
The possibilities exist because hydrogen can theoretically be extracted during the process. That bodes well for the future, as hydrogen fuel cells appear to be at the forefront of technological advances in the automobile industry, where companies are working to create much greater fuel efficiency through the use of hydrogen cells.
Additionally, hydrogen represents a building block of energy, used for other transportation and energy-consumption needs, including heating and cooling applications.
In order for any artificial photosynthesis process to work and create energy, the output of oxygen must change instead to the aforementioned hydrogen. The difficulty involves splitting water molecules in order to produce the chemical process that produces hydrogen instead of oxygen.
According to scientists, splitting a water molecule requires 2.5 volts of energy, meaning that energy is required to produce further energy. Despite that, the theoretical energy production far outweighs the inputs, meaning that the process will not break down merely as a result of this necessary step.
At present, manganese, titanium dioxide, and cobalt oxide, are being used in attempts to trigger artificial photosynthesis in a manner that produces hydrogen.
While there is, obviously, no mass-production in place at present, scientists are finding promising clues. The results have been created in laboratories already but, as with most energy production, the issue remains efficiency in mass production.
Using manganese, for example, in man-made applications has proved problematic, as manganese is relatively unstable. It also has a short life span in applications built to date, and it will not dissolve in water. The result is an inefficiency that is unacceptable for long-term production.
The other catalysts that are being used are facing other, similar, problems, but there appears to be every indication that artificial photosynthesis can work, at some level, to reduce human dependence on fossil fuels.