Artificial Photosynthesis: Background information when reading Solar

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by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwan X
Solar by Ian McEwan
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 304 pages
    Mar 2011, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Beyond the Book:
Artificial Photosynthesis

Print Review

Much of the science upon which Beard stakes his reputation (even though he may have gleaned it unethically) deals with the concept of artificial photosynthesis, a real proposed solution to energy consumption problems, one that Beard himself explains eloquently and convincingly in a speech to a group of businesspeople and investors. When he first encounters the idea, Beard calls it "brilliant or insane," but regardless of his ambivalence, artificial photosynthesis is a proposal that is very much under discussion as one of the potential answers to the mounting questions about where humans will draw their energy in years to come.

Essentially, artificial photosynthesis does what plants have been doing for the last 2.8 billion years or so: using the energy from the sun to convert compounds from one form to another. Plants use the energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar (with extra oxygen left over). Artificial photosynthesis uses the energy from the sun to break up water into oxygen and energy in the form of hydrogen, which can then be used in fuel cells to create electricity or simply utilized as a liquid fuel itself, as explained in the video below. The process has the potential to be both efficient and relatively cheap and, as Beard himself points out in the novel, solar energy is perhaps the ultimate renewable resource, one that won’t be exhausted until the Earth itself is in its final days. Currently, scientists at MIT and elsewhere are, like Beard, working to convince business and industry leaders that artificial photosynthesis could be a viable solution to what seems, at times, like a hopeless dilemma.

In this video, MIT professor Daniel Nocera demonstrates the enormous potential of the process he has been working on for 25 years. For more see Sun Catalytix.

Note: Those who remember their high school biology may recollect that photosynthesis is the process of converting carbon dioxide and water into organic compounds, especially sugars, using the energy from the sun. As such the process described in the above video - splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen - is not technically 'photosynthesis' but photolysis - which is one of the stages of photosynthesis.

Article by Norah Piehl

This article was originally published in May 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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