Artificial Plants and Fuel for the Future

Towards the end of last term I sat down with the ANU’s very own Professor Ron Pace to talk about artificial plants, water-splitting and the future of humanity.

 

Initiated by the late Warrick Hillia, Professor Pace is engaged in engineering a process to create hydrogen from water and sunlight. If he and his team are successful it will be arguably the biggest breakthrough in renewable energy production of this decade. Unlike coal which burns to form Co2, the burning of hydrogen in the atmosphere simply creates water. If the process to create hydrogen can be done in a sustainable way, we will have a commercially viable, completely sustainable fuel for the future.

 

The knowledge that plants photosynthesise is imparted to most of us while we are in junior school, however it is a mechanistic view of how this process occurs that is fundamental to Pace’s work. When plants photosynthesise, they split water to release oxygen and in doing so “do 90% of the work to make hydrogen” according to Professor Pace, “our goal is to figure out how the plant does the chemistry [when it comes to water splitting]… so we can recreate the active site more simply”. Though the idea seems out of a science fiction novel, the best way to think about Pace’s work is that he is trying to create a synthetic plant.

 

The use of computational chemistry has been instrumental in Pace’s work. Using high powered computers, Pace is able to look at the “light capture, electron transfer, manganese mediated water splitting” that goes on in photosynthesis in a way that is far more efficient than in a lab. With the techniques available to him, Pace is confident that the problem of a mechanistic understanding of photosynthesis can be cracked “within a year”.

 

The short time period that Professor Pace believes this can be completed in is all the more impressive considering the campus-wide funding cuts that have been employed by the ANU. Pace jokes with me that while he “hesitates to make a plea for money… any assistance that an enlightened government might seek to throw our way, we will make excellent use of”. The reality is that, for the research to continue, Pace’s team has sought contracts with Chinese corporations instead.

 

The highlight of the interview comes when I ask whether there has been any ‘eureka’ moments in the project. There was recently held a conference where the various groups world-wide came together to compare results on this topic. During the conference there was a presentation by a  competing team who had made some very detailed measurements the, but was surprised by the results, “as I sat in the audience and listened to this I thought “I know how this f***ing works””. The eureka moment was the knowledge that “we can explain the things that they can’t”.
While this process is still in its early stages, Professor Pace is confident that his research will produce a viable alternative to current fuels within his lifetime.