Artificial photosynthesis--the idea that we might be able to create energy and other useful thing from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, as plants do--is something of a holy grail for energy and green chemistry researchers. And while some efforts have shown modest potential--MIT’s Nocera Lab, for instance, claims to have created an artificial leaf from stable materials--efficiency is still a problem. That hasn’t stopped consumer electronics giant Panasonic; the company yesterday revealed that it is investing in artificial photosynthesis technology that turns carbon dioxide and sunlight into industrial chemicals. Just add water.
Panasonic’s two-step approach involves a nitride semiconductor that converts sunlight into a flow of electrons that splits water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen. A second reaction then coverts carbon dioxide and the harvested hydrogen into formic acid via a metallic catalyst. Formic acid is a widely-used chemical in textile production and food preservation, particularly for livestock feed (fun fact: it occurs naturally in bee and ant venom).