It’s pretty common knowledge that plants grow through the process of photosynthesis. At its core, photosynthesis converts light energy into chemical energy that the plant can then use for its day-to-day plant things.
Scientists have been trying to master artificial photosynthesis for some time, and now researchers in Denmark are turning the idea on its head by achieving ‘reverse photosynthesis’ – a process that breaks down biomass to create chemicals and energy.
According to the University of Copenhagen team, the process works by trapping sunlight in chlorophyll molecules just like plants do in nature.
Then, natural enzymes called monooxygenases are added, which allows the solar energy to start breaking down the plant biomass, producing chemicals and energy in the process.
“It has always been right beneath our noses, and yet no one has ever taken note: photosynthesis by way of the Sun doesn’t just allow things to grow, the same principles can be applied to break plant matter down, allowing the release of chemical substances,” says one of the team, Claus Felby. “In other words, direct sunlight drives chemical processes.”
Basically, this process is directly opposite of natural photosynthesis.
“We use the term ‘reverse photosynthesis’ because the enzymes use atmospheric oxygen and the Sun’s rays to break down and transform carbon bonds, in plants among other things, instead of building plants and producing oxygen as is typically understood with photosynthesis,” says another of the researchers, Klaus Benedikt Møllers.
According to Alyssa Navarro at Tech Times, the process takes place in 5 to 10 minutes with sunlight, but without sunlight, it would take up to 24 hours to achieve the same energy transformation.
Plants aside, what does this mean for the world? Well, it could have dramatic effects on how biofuels, plastics, and other industrial products are made. Using reverse photosynthesis, factories could both speed up production while lowering pollution – a problem that needs to be addressed if we want to continue living on our planet with fancy new gadgets.
Though the future looks bright for the discovery, there is still a bunch of work that needs to happen for researchers to figure out how it will benefit us on an everyday level.
Until then, you can read the team’s full report in Nature Communications.