(NaturalNews) Researchers from Imperial College London have launched a £1 million ($1.6 million) study to create what they call an "artificial leaf," mimicking the process of photosynthesis that allows plants to generate energy from the sun.
Plants use solar radiation to power a chemical reaction that converts water and carbon dioxide into sugar. Part of this reaction entails splitting water molecules into their component hydrogen and oxygen parts, something that remains very expensive using modern technology.
Photosynthesis is so efficient, however, that scientists estimate that it could meet all the Earth's power needs for a year from merely an hour of sunlight. An artificial photosynthesis system that used only 10 percent of the light hitting it could meet all global energy needs if it covered only 0.16 percent of the Earth's surface area (about 315,000 square miles).
"We know that plants have already evolved to do it and we know that, fundamentally, it's a workable process on a large scale," said John Loughhead of the UK Energy Research Center. "Ultimately, the only sustainable form of energy we've got is the sun. From a strategic viewpoint, you have to think this looks really interesting because we know we're starting from a base of feasibility."
In contrast to other alternative energy sources such as solar panels or windmills, which produce electricity directly, the Imperial College researchers want to use photosynthesis to produce fuels -- either hydrogen for fuel cells, or sugars for biofuel engines. Even though the burning of these fuels would still produce carbon dioxide, the researchers believe it would be balanced out by the carbon dioxide that the artificial leaf removed from the air to make the fuel in the first place.
As one of their first steps, researchers are working on an artificial copy of the enzyme, photosystem 2, that plants use to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
"It doesn't mean that you try to build exactly what the leaf has," researcher James Barber said. "Leonardo da Vinci tried to design flying machines with feathers that flapped up and down. But in the end we built 747s and Airbus 380s, completely different to a bird."