What do plants do with their energy

Energy through sunlight - let's do it like the plants

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Using photosynthesis like plants: science has been trying to do this for a long time. But that's not easy.

"The energy from the sun, which reaches the earth in one hour, is enough to meet the world's energy needs for a year," says Roger Alberto, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Zurich. Of course that's theory.

But the comparison illustrates how much energy the sun radiates towards us. Hour after hour, day after day.

Almost everything is fossil

Today, oil, gas and coal cover 85 percent of the world's energy needs. Fossil fuels are easy to transport and easy to store - this is another reason why they have become so widely accepted.

With the well-known undesirable consequences such as environmental pollution and climate change. Researchers are therefore working on artificial fuels that can be produced sustainably.

Fuel from sunlight

Using the sun's energy is obvious - but more complicated than it seems at first glance. For example, if you want to produce fuel from the solar radiation that reaches the roof of a house, it takes about two hours before one liter of artificial gasoline can be produced.

This is already possible today with complex technical equipment: electricity is generated from solar panels, which is used to first make hydrogen and then artificial gasoline. This process is called “Power to Gas”.

Store light energy

The detour via electricity costs energy and therefore time. This is why the idea of ​​artificial photosynthesis, as pursued by Roger Alberto at the University of Zurich, arose. Link opens in a new window: “In principle, we could have yields of up to 80 percent,” says Alberto.

To do this, he wants to store the light energy directly in chemical energy. The plants show how it works. An idea - already millions of years old.

The most important process in the world

Photosynthesis is arguably the most important achievement that life has ever produced. The green plants and some microorganisms have a special light-gathering device to capture the sun's energy. With the help of this energy, the plants build their own body substance - that is, they store the solar energy in chemical form.

Without photosynthesis there would be no potatoes, no wheat, no bread, no pasta. And no food for the animals. Without photosynthesis, the earth would be a desert.

Copy the idea

However, natural photosynthesis is a very complex process. "To this day, it is still not fully understood," says Roger Alberto.

He therefore only wanted to adopt the basic idea of ​​photosynthesis: light energy becomes chemical energy.

Red glow

That is why the molecules in his laboratory do not glow green as they do in nature, but orange-red. The artificial photosynthesis project is still far from being used on the roof of the house. The molecules in the laboratory do not last long enough, which is still very unsatisfactory.

The race is on, however, and numerous laboratories around the world are working on artificial photosynthesis. A not yet tangible, but possible energy future.

Broadcast: Radio SRF 2 Kultur, science magazine, 07/28/2018, 12:38 p.m.

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