What Is Artificial Photosynthesis?

In an innovative stride towards sustainable energy solutions, researchers have achieved a significant breakthrough by emulating the natural process of photosynthesis to generate methane, a potent and dense energy source, from carbon dioxide (CO2), water, and sunlight. 

This pioneering method of artificial photosynthesis method not only introduces a prototype system poised to replace finite fossil fuels but also provides insight into the future landscape of renewable energy technologies.


Artificial Photosynthesis Explained


Plants have long mastered the art of harnessing sunlight for photosynthesis, converting CO2 and water into oxygen and sugars for energy. Conversely, humans have sought ways to tap into this abundant, sustainable solar energy, with solar panels being a prominent method.

Artificial photosynthesis is a scientific process that aims to replicate the natural process of photosynthesis, which occurs in plants, to generate energy in a sustainable manner. In natural photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into oxygen and sugars, which serve as energy sources for the plant.

Similarly, artificial photosynthesis involves using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to produce energy-rich molecules, such as hydrogen or methane, which can be used as fuels. Scientists have been working on developing artificial photosynthesis as a potential solution to address energy needs while reducing reliance on fossil fuels and mitigating carbon dioxide emissions.


How Does Artificial Photosynthesis Work?


The process of artificial photosynthesis typically involves several key steps:

Light Absorption

Specialised materials called photocatalysts are used to absorb sunlight. These photocatalysts can be made from various compounds, such as metal oxides or organic molecules, designed to capture light energy effectively.

Water Splitting

Once the photocatalysts absorb sunlight, they initiate chemical reactions that split water molecules (H2O) into hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O2) gases. This step is akin to the initial stage of natural photosynthesis, where plants use light energy to split water and release oxygen.

Carbon Dioxide Reduction

In some artificial photosynthesis systems, the hydrogen produced from water splitting is then combined with carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere or industrial sources. Through a series of chemical reactions facilitated by catalysts, the hydrogen reacts with carbon dioxide to form energy-rich molecules such as methane (CH4) or other hydrocarbons.

Product Formation

The final step of artificial photosynthesis involves the formation of desired products, such as hydrogen gas or methane, which can be used as clean fuels or chemical precursors for various industrial processes.

Practical Example of Artificial Photosynthesis 


A team of scientists has made significant strides in developing a system that harnesses sunlight to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Their aim was to refine this process to closely emulate photosynthesis, absorbing CO2 and storing solar energy in methane while using cost-effective and scalable materials.

To achieve this, the researchers engineered a series of reaction cells resembling solar panels. Each cell was coated with an aluminium-doped strontium titanate (SrTiO3) photocatalyst to facilitate the reaction.

These cells, filled with water and exposed to sunlight, divided the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen gas underwent purification and entered a second chamber where it combined with CO2, producing methane and water. The water was then cycled back into the initial step with the photoreactor.

Building upon a previously designed 100 m2-scale photocatalytic solar hydrogen production mini-plant, the new apparatus displayed continuous production of filtered hydrogen gas over several months. 

In addition, the team integrated a catalytic CO2 methanator to convert photogenerated H2 into CH4, effectively accumulating photosynthetic methane (CH4). The experiment involved testing various versions of the apparatus, each tailored for specific experimental purposes and assembly sizes.

In a practical application, a 130-square-foot array of these cells, roughly the size of a small bedroom, operated continuously for three days under diverse weather conditions. While the outcomes are promising, the team recognises the need to enhance the efficiency of these systems before considering them as viable options for large-scale power generation.


What Are the Benefits of Artificial Photosynthesis?


Artificial photosynthesis and solar panels harness solar power but offer distinct advantages, catering to different energy needs and carving unique niches in renewable energy. Artificial photosynthesis, with its capability to store energy in chemical bonds like methane, offers on-demand energy utilisation and a versatile solution by providing chemicals usable as fuels or raw materials across industries.

Moreover, it stands out in its ability to utilise and mitigate atmospheric CO2, offering a route to carbon-neutral fuel production and addressing greenhouse gas emission concerns. 


What Are the Disadvantages of Artificial Photosynthesis?


Despite the initial promising signs of artificial photosynthesis, it’s still very much in its infancy, with researchers exploring avenues to enhance its efficiency, scalability, and cost-effectiveness, which may initially be higher due to technological complexity. Here are a few disadvantages that scientists are currently trying to overcome:

Complexity and Cost

The technology behind artificial photosynthesis is complex and often expensive to develop and implement. The specialised materials and equipment required for efficient artificial photosynthesis systems can drive up costs, making it challenging to achieve widespread adoption, especially in comparison to established energy technologies like fossil fuels or even traditional solar panels.


Current systems are not as efficient as natural photosynthesis or other renewable energy technologies like solar panels. The conversion of sunlight into chemical energy is still relatively inefficient, leading to lower overall energy yields compared to more established methods of energy production. Improving efficiency is a key area of research and development in artificial photosynthesis.

Scale-Up Challenges

While laboratory-scale demonstrations of artificial photosynthesis have shown promise, scaling up these systems to industrial or commercial levels presents significant challenges. Factors such as maintaining consistent performance, durability, and cost-effectiveness become more pronounced at larger scales, requiring innovative engineering solutions.

Storage and Distribution

Like other renewable energy sources, artificial photosynthesis systems face challenges related to energy storage and distribution. Hydrogen and methane, commonly produced through artificial photosynthesis, require specialised storage and distribution infrastructure, which may not be widely available or cost-effective.

Environmental Impact

While artificial photosynthesis aims to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions by recycling CO2 into fuels, the production and utilisation of these fuels may still have environmental impacts.

For example, methane, a common product of artificial photosynthesis, is a potent greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere. Managing methane emissions and ensuring proper utilisation are essential considerations for the environmental sustainability of artificial photosynthesis.


Will Artificial Photosynthesis Become a Form of Clean Energy?


Methane, a greenhouse gas, is also a highly energy-dense fuel and the main component of natural gas. Traditional fossil fuels, including natural gas, take millions of years to form, with extraction carrying environmental consequences.

Hence, developing methods to produce methane from renewable sources could gradually reduce reliance on nonrenewable fuels. The researchers envision this proof-of-concept system adapting to produce precursors for plastics or other chemical feedstocks and scaling up for larger quantities of sustainable biofuels.

The endeavour to replicate plant power via artificial photosynthesis holds promise for sustainable energy production. Utilising sunlight to produce methane offers a path to reducing reliance on nonrenewable fuels and moving towards sustainable, eco-friendly energy solutions.

However, the journey continues. The efficiency and scalability of these systems need further exploration and optimisation to enable large-scale implementation. In essence, the exploration of artificial photosynthesis marks a stride towards innovative energy solutions, offering an opportunity to delve deeper into understanding and replicating the natural processes that have sustained life on Earth for eons. As progress unfolds, the convergence of science, technology, and sustainability stands poised to shape our energy future.