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I've been hearing a lot in the news about artificial photosynthesis processes that can use energy from sunlight to split water and produce synthetic fuel. Sounds pretty exciting, but being a non-physicist, I'm having some trouble separating the science from the hype. So I'm hoping somebody can set me straight.

  • Does this technology exist in any form at anything beyond a proof-of-concept stage?
  • Is it possible, at the present time, to produce renewable fuel in a sustainable/environmentally friendly way (i.e. one that doesn't require the use of scarce, toxic catalysts?) I've heard the term "solar fuel" tossed around, but I'm not clear on what that means: Hydrogen? Methanol? Something else?
  • Would this offer any advantages over just using batteries/fuel cells to store the electricity produced by PV systems?
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According to the Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), research is ongoing. Very recently, according to the JCAP's News and Events page, researchers have been researching and testing

energetics and efficiency analysis of a material capable of harnessing solar energy into fuel.

In general, the stages that JCAP appears to be at, according to their research page

spans efforts ranging from the fundamental discovery of new light absorbing materials to the design and testing of fully functional prototypes.

where the prototyping is focussed on

the design of prototype models that use dual-light absorber (tandem) configuration cells.

A list of their research is on their publications page.

In terms of what solar fuels are, the Royal Society of Chemistry article Solar Fuels illustrates the process as well as defining 'solar fuels' as being hydrogen gas, methane, carbon monoxide and methanol - these are used in both industrial processes as well as generating electricity:

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Several infographics are also provided by the Royal Society of Chemistry's page Solar fuels and artificial photosynthesis (an example is above).

Some benefits of artificial photosynthesis is, according to the article The Promise of Artificial Photosynthesis, include that while PV cells can produce electricity, artificial photosynthesis can also provide fuels and industrial chemicals (as seen in the diagram above).

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I think you might've heard of the progress of a Santa Barbara, CA company called HyperSolar and their photosynthesis-inspired design for an underwater electrolysis application of nano-scale electrodes that are mass produced from copper or copper-coated material (or something like that). Fantastic technology, if it ever gets to market....

Here they are:

http://www.hypersolar.com/

Enjoy! :)

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The Naval Research Lab has also done some interesting work on extracting CO2 and water from seawater and fabricating fuel from that: http://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2012/fueling-the-fleet-navy-looks-to-the-seas

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