Clean fuel from 'bionic leaf' could ease
pressure on farmland: scientists
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[July 02, 2016]
By Chris Arsenault
RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters
Foundation) - A new clean technology to turn sunlight into liquid fuel
could drastically shrink the need for large plantations to grow crops
for biofuels, while combating climate change, Harvard University
researchers said on Thursday.
That could help protect food supplies and local people's land
rights, they suggested.
Dubbed "bionic leaf 2.0", the technology uses solar panels to split
water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, the scientists said in a
study published in the journal Science.
Once separated, hydrogen is moved into a chamber where it is
consumed by bacteria, and with help from a special metal catalyst
and carbon dioxide, the process generates liquid fuel.
The method is an artificial version of the photosynthesis process
plants use to make energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide,
If it becomes economically viable, the technology could replace oil
wells or plantations where food crops are grown for fuel, the
study's lead author said.
"This (new energy source) is not competing with food for
agricultural land," Harvard University Professor of Energy Daniel
Nocera told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Crops such as corn and sugar cane have been increasingly cultivated
to produce biofuels. About 4 percent of the world's farmland is used
to grow crops for fuel rather than food, according to a University
of Virginia study published in March.
Tens of thousands of small-scale farmers across Africa, Asia and
Latin America have been displaced by plantations growing crops to
make biofuels, according to GRAIN, a Barcelona-based land rights
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The new technology could help protect their land rights while also
reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet,
"The (land) footprint these solar panels need is
about one tenth the size of what you would need for sugar cane," he
If governments put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, the "bionic
leaf" would appeal to investors as a cost-effective alternative
energy source, the professor added.
Today, however, it remains cheaper to grow biofuel crops or extract
fossil fuels than to produce renewable energy, Nocera said.
A carbon tax boosting U.S. gas prices to European levels - although
not yet on the cards - would likely be enough to spur investment in
the new technology, he said.
"Bionic leaf 2.0" converts solar energy into liquid fuel with 10
percent efficiency, far higher than the 1 percent efficiency seen in
the fastest-growing plants that use a similar process, Nocera added.
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault; editing by Megan Rowling; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson
Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking
and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)
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