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Breakthrough Made in Synthetic Photosynthesis Could Create Clean Energy Fuels

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Photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunlight into energy, is one of nature's most efficient, incredible processes. For years, researchers have been seeking ways to harness this power for the good of the planet. If they could find a way to reproduce the effects of photosynthesis--to create a kind of synthetic photosynthesis--then perhaps they could use it to create clean energy fuels, or even clean pollutants from the air. Now, a team of chemists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Virginia Tech have come as close as anyone ever has to actually creating synthetic photosynthesis. 

How Does Natural Photosynthesis Work? 

To understand scientists' research in the area of synthetic photosynthesis, one must first understand how natural photosynthesis works, and the effect it has on our planet.

Chlorophyll, the pigment which gives many plants their green color, is vital to the process of photosynthesis. Inside a plant's cells, chlorophyll captures light energy from the sun, which then transfers electrons from water (H2O) to carbon dioxide (CO2), which produces carbohydrates. The plant uses these carbohydrates for energy. In this way, plants are able to use sunlight to obtain the same sort of energy that animals obtain by eating food. 

Oxygen is a natural byproduct of photosynthesis. In this way, plants "recycle" the CO2 produced by all breathing animals, including humans, by turning it into oxygen. Without plants, the oxygen in our atmosphere would become depleted within several thousand years, and breathing would become impossible.