Panasonic patents efficient artificial photosynthesis

Sensemaking / Panasonic patents efficient artificial photosynthesis

Technology drawn from LEDs is being developed by Panasonic to harvest energy from light with record efficiency. Could this be used to convert carbon dioxide emitted by power plants?

23 Oct 2012

Technology drawn from LEDs is being developed by Panasonic to harvest energy from light with record efficiency. Could this be used to convert carbon dioxide emitted by power plants?

Electronics giant Panasonic has announced the development of an artificial photosynthesis system which can convert carbon dioxide into organic materials, with record efficiency. The company says its system is as efficient as a living plant, at 0.2% – a big improvement on the 0.04% announced by Toyota Central R&D Labs in 2011.

The key to its technology is a nitride semiconductor, typically used in LEDs, which produces a flow of electrons to split water into oxygen and hydrogen in the presence of light. A metal catalyst then triggers the breakdown of CO2, producing formic acid. This chemical can be used in everything from livestock feed to cleaning products, and is a strong contender for the future of fuel cells. With 29 patents relating to the technology, Panasonic is well-placed to profit if the market for formic acid were to expand. The company plans to use the technology to capture and convert CO2 from incinerators and power plants. 

Research in the field of artificial photosynthesis has so far focused on the production of hydrogen for fuel, the most promising being the ‘artificial leaf’ system developed last year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but efficiency has always been a problem. Whereas conventional systems have been limited by their complex structures, Panasonic’s all-inorganic system is low energy loss: the reaction rate is exactly proportional to the light power provided.

Despite the system’s impressive efficiency, for commercial viability it will need further improvement to levels beyond that of a plant, says Devens Gust, Director of the ASU Center for Bio-Inspired Solar Fuel Production. – Annabelle Bladon

Photos: Comstock/thinkstock; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory/Science Photo Library

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