Cooperation with US institutions on artificial photosynthesis is expanded

Plants use photosynthesis to generate energy from water and CO2. Researchers from the US are working on copying this process for fuel production. State Secretary Rachel has now agreed a strategic collaboration.

Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Rachel © LBNL/Paul Mueller

Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Rachel visited the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory during his multi-day trip to California. Together with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), it is the main seat of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). Dr Frances Houle, Deputy Director of JCAP, guided him around the labs and explained what progress has been made since the Center was founded in 2010. A highlight of the visit was the exchange of a common Memorandum of Understanding between Caltech and a consortium of German research institutions led by TU Ilmenau. This will serve to strengthen the existing collaboration in the key area of artificial photosynthesis. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research supports this project.

Artificial photosynthesis is modelled on nature: Solar energy and simple elements such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water are used to produce more complex molecules. These molecules can then be used as basic chemicals or artificial fuels, also known as solar fuels. These artificial systems can even outperform natural photosynthesis. While plants utilize less than 1 percent of sunlight when transforming CO2 into sugar and other biomolecules, artificial photosynthesis can be much more efficient. For example, in a collaboration between researchers from JCAP and Germany, a new world record was set for water splitting via sunlight with an energy efficiency of 19 percent.

JCAP is among the leading institutions worldwide in the field of artificial photosynthesis. It was established in 2010 as a so-called Energy Innovation Hub by the Department of Energy (DOE). With more than 100 researchers, it is one of the biggest institutions that deals with the study of artificial fuels from solar energy. German researchers hope this new collaboration will help them benefit in particular from the JCAP's considerable expertise in the field of technology transfer.

In future, promising technologies are to be put into industrial application more rapidly in Germany too. With measures on the material use of CO2, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research already provides funding for collaborative projects concerning the photocatalytic transformation of CO2 into chemicals and fuels. This funding is continued in a new measure “CO2 as a sustainable carbon source - ways towards industrial use (CO2-WIN)”. Further projects on artificial photosynthesis will be launched from February 2020 onwards. This funding measure is intended to strengthen cooperation between Germany and the US in this important field of technology.