As scientists, politicians and businesses around the world continue to look for efficient, viable sources of renewable energy, often focusing on ever more advanced and intricate processes and mechanisms, several scientists, including MIT professor of chemistry Daniel Nocera, have been turning to a natural process that Mother Nature has spent the past millenia perfecting: photosynthesis. This process, powered only by light and water, allows plants to produce the lignin and cellulose they need to maintain their structure and the stored sugar they rely on for energy. To do this, plants have developed an elegant set of components that captures sunlight and converts it into a usable form of chemical energy through a series of elaborate chemical reactions. Through his research, Nocera told MIT Technology Review's Kevin Bullis, he hopes to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie photosynthesis and that could be applied on a large scale to store energy derived from the sun as chemical fuel, in the form of hydrogen. Although photosynthesis itself is not a very effective process to store energy, Nocera argues that it is one of the most efficient for energy conversion, and he envisions a future in which it could be used on a wide scale in photovoltaics or to power fuel-cell vehicles.
He has had some success so far in creating a compound that can produce hydrogen in solution when light is shined on it. He is now working on deciphering the mechanisms through which plants are able to conduct multi-electron reactions and manage protons, two processes he believes are key to advancing our knowledge of solar energy.
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