Researchers at the Australian National University are one step closer to creating an artificial photosynthesis system after replicating one of its crucial steps. The development may lead to an abundant source of hydrogen, a cheap and clean fuel that could replace all petroleum products.

The dream of cheap, abundant and sustainable fuel is a powerful one that has entranced scientists and writers – even John Updike's depiction of The Devil in his Witches of Eastwick spent his days finding a way to create a limitless power supply – for decades. Among the growing array of alternative energy sources, photosynthesis, one of the most effective forms of solar power, continues to fascinate.

There have been many attempts to recreate photosynthesis but as the ANU researchers have said themselves, it remains poorly understood. However, they believe they are now one step closer to turning some of life's most basic necessities – water and sunlight – into a sustainable fuel that could replace petroleum products as a zero-carbon alternative. Hydrogen is already used as a fuel, and while a clean fuel, its production is usually not clean.

Doctor Katsoori Hingorani and Professor Ron Pace from ANU

The ANU team modified the protein ferratin, which is found in the majority of living things, to store manganese instead of iron – manganese is a common element central to the photosynthesis process and has been used in similar research. Secondly, the team replaced the haem group compund to which the protein usually binds with light sensitive zinc chlorin.

"A light shining onto the modified protein indicated a charge transfer as in photosynthesis," said the ANU, which explained that the modified protein also "displays the electrical heartbeat that is the key to photosynthesis."

The researchers believe that this simple process will bring simple and cheap artificial photosynthesis suitable for developing nations closer to fruition, lightening the burden of power and pollution.

"This is the first time we have replicated the primary capture of energy from sunlight,” Professor Ron Pace, one of the co-researchers, said. “It’s the beginning of a whole suite of possibilities, such as creating a highly efficient fuel, or to trapping atmospheric carbon.”

The scientists' work has been published in the journal BBA Bioenergetics

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