Reverse photosynthesis. That is what a research team from University of Copenhagen with Professor Claus Felby in front calls its sensational discovery. The group has found a method where sunlight can speed up production of biofuels and other bioproducts significantly. University of Copenhagen is a member of BioRefining Alliance, which works to promote advanced biorefining.
Professor Claus Felby, University of Copenhagen. Photographer: Julie Søgaard
It already exists in nature. The reverse photosynthesis. But a group of researchers from the University of Copenhagen is the first in the world discovering it.
The scientists call the process reverse photosynthesis because sunlight along with the plants’ chlorophyll and a number of enzymes called monooxygenases can break down plant biomass so that it can be used for biofuels, biochemicals and other high value products – unlike the well-known photosynthesis, which builds the plants. The process can also reduce the contamination significantly. The scientists do not yet know how widespread the process is in nature, but there are indications that fungi and bacteria use reverse photosynthesis when they want to access to sugar and nutrients in plants.
It has always been there right in front of us and yet no one has seen it: That photosynthesis with help from the sun not only makes things grow, but the same principles can also be used to break down plant products, so they can release their substances. This means that direct sunlight can drive chemical processes. One can exploit the immense energy in the sunlight, so processes can take place without a supply of any other form of energy, says Professor Claus Felby and adds:
The discovery means that by using the sun we can make biofuels and biochemicals for use in e.g. plastic faster, at lower temperatures and more energy-efficient. Some of the reactions that today takes 24 hours can be done in just 10 minutes using sunlight, says Claus Felby.
There is no doubt that the discovery is one of the biggest breakthroughs we have seen in years, but the scientists believe that there is a need for further research and development before the new knowledge can benefit society.
The discovery is published in Nature Communications