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Artificial Photosynthesis Return to case studies page

Thomas Nann, SA node - University of South Australia
Energy and Sustainability
Could the answer to the world’s energy and carbon emission problems lie in nature’s own process of photosynthesis?

“Most likely yes” says ANFF-SA node director and University of South Australia Professor Thomas Nann.

Photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to convert carbon dioxide and light into stored chemical energy. It is the same energy and carbon that is released when fossil fuels are burned thousands of years later. Artificial photosynthesis (AP) is an electrochemical process that mimics natural photosynthesis.

Prof Nann said: “Our projects aim to use AP to produce fuel from either water or carbon dioxide by using sunlight as the primary energy source.” “Our dream is to tile the outback with little devices that produce stored energy when the sun shines. Hydrogen, for instance, can be used as a fuel for cars, planes or converted to electrical energy.”

A critical part of the electrochemical AP device is the fabrication of photoanodes and photocathodes. This is done by decorating high surface area substrates, such as the electrospun structure in Fig. 1, with quantum dots, Fig. 2.

The combination of a photoanode and photocathode then allows for either the splitting of water to create hydrogen fuel, or reduction of carbon dioxide into formate fuel. The Nann team has been fabricating and characterising quantum dots and catalysts at the ANFF-SA laboratories in the University of South Australia. They have also fabricated microfluidic devices designed to distribute and position these nanoparticles on high surface area electrospun microstructures.

Devices made by the Nann team aim to maximise the efficiently that they convert sunlight to fuel, which is currently similar to that of conventional solar cells.

According to Prof Nann: “This project could provide a very critical step towards establishing a future hydrogen fuel based economy - the most realistic and promising alternative to the current fossil fuel based economy we have today.”