Taking a leaf out of nature’s book: Germany’s science academies present position paper on artificial photosynthesis
Berlin, 15 May 2018
A joint position paper of the German academies of science recommends that artificial photosynthesis should receive greater attention in future energy transition scenarios. Artificial photosynthesis offers hitherto untapped opportunities for creating environmentally- and climate-friendly energy systems. The position paper calls for better coordination of basic research and closer ties with industrial research. It stresses the importance of system integration in order to enable the development of efficient, cost-effective plants.
Energy transition scenarios are dominated by renewable energy sources that are already available today, such as wind and solar PV. One major challenge faced by these technologies is how to store the surplus electricity generated at times when there are high levels of sunlight or strong winds. To date, artificial photosynthesis has received very little attention. The vision of producing chemical energy carriers and materials using sunlight as the sole energy source is more than a hundred years old. Now, advances in basic research are turning the dream of artificial photosynthesis into an important long-term alternative for delivering the energy transition. The different forms of artificial photosynthesis yield products such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, methanol and ammonia, as well as more complex substances capable of replacing fossil fuels and raw materials such as coal, oil and natural gas.
According to project leader and Executive Director of the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis, Matthias Beller, “Artificial photosynthesis can become an important complementary option and alternative to conventional solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity. It is simply not possible to store huge quantities of electricity. Artificial photosynthesis allows the energy from sunlight to be stored in chemical bonds. Its products can be easily stored and can be used as chemical precursors and fuels.”
Although techniques for harnessing the sun’s energy have huge potential, Matthias Beller warns that they still face major scientific and technological challenges. “A number of key aspects of artificial photosynthesis are still at the basic research stage. There have been some significant research advances in certain parts of the artificial photosynthesis process, some of which can now be performed even more efficiently than in nature. However, there is still a long way to go before the technology can be deployed at scale. Among other things, it will be important to improve the coordination of basic research and build closer ties with industrial research.”
From vision to research and development
Laboratories around the world have developed several individual components of artificial photosynthesis, some of which are already extremely efficient. Now, one of the priorities for researchers is to combine these individual elements. Once this has been achieved, industrial-scale pilot plants should be established in order to develop commercially viable artificial photosynthesis. It will be important to ensure cooperation between universities and industrial research facilities, with initiatives being coordinated along the lines of the model used by the “Kopernikus projects for the energy transition”. The academies expect that it will still be some years before the potential of artificial photosynthesis can be realistically assessed.
It is the academies’ view that artificial photosynthesis is a viable way of creating climate-friendlier energy and raw material systems, although it is by no means the only option. Artificial photosynthesis techniques should therefore only be developed for large-scale industrial use in those areas where they promise clear advantages over other alternatives. In view of the intensive research being undertaken around the world and the ambitious goals, the academies stress the importance of being willing to take appropriate risks. As Matthias Beller concludes, “We have to be prepared for the long haul. However, if we can achieve the goal of using sunlight as sustainably as it is used in nature, then it will be worth all the effort.”