Discovery could lead to endless renewable fuel 

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A LOCAL and international discovery could give humans access to an endless supply of cheap hydrogen fuel for transportation, without carbon emissions, according to ANU’s Dr Nick Cox.

Dr Nick Cox

Dr Cox, who lead the part the study at ANU, which was done in conjunction with the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion (MPI-CEC) in Germany, for the first time identifies an important photosynthetic process that enables plants to split water.

Dr Cox, from the ANU Research School of Chemistry, says if humans can split water using cheap materials like nature did, society would have an endless supply of cheap hydrogen fuel for transportation, without carbon emissions that contribute to human-caused climate change.

“Enough sunlight hits the Earth in a single hour to power all human activity for over a year,” he says.

“Plants use this harvested energy to split water and make complex carbohydrates which provide food for the plant to grow and thrive. This process also enriches our atmosphere with oxygen for animals, including humans, to breathe.

“Copying this process from nature would lead to new and improved renewable energy storage technologies.”

MPI-CEC researcher Dr Maria Chrysina says the study reveals how a key enzyme needs to “breathe” to allow access to water.

“Half-way through its reaction cycle the enzyme develops the ability to stretch like a concertina, which enables the orderly uptake of water to begin the splitting process,” Dr Chyrsina says.

ANU co-researcher Dr Eiri Heyno says water splitting in nature could be hindered without the critical steps identified by the team.

“Without the careful, sequential binding of water, more reactive oxygen molecules can potentially be released that could unravel the whole water-splitting process,” Dr Heyno says.

The study, which also involved researchers from Sweden, is published in “Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”.

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