Scientists aim to mimic plants to discover new clean fuel source

Dr Gareth Owen is leading research into new ways of mimicking plants to make hydrogen from water

Dr Gareth Owen is leading the research project

Researchers at the University of South Wales (USW) are helping the quest to discover new ways to form a clean source of fuel by mimicking the chemical reactions in plants.

As part of a three-year research programme, funded by a £191,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust, a team led by Dr Gareth Owen, senior lecturer in inorganic chemistry at USW, is looking to copy processes carried out during photosynthesis to increase the production of hydrogen.

“Photosynthesis is one of the most important processes in nature - it’s the starting point in the food chain and replaces oxygen in the atmosphere,” said Dr Owen. 

“Nature does this by just using just water, carbon dioxide and sunlight.” 

“The efficiency of such transformations which occur in nature are astonishing,  while scientists have attempted to mimic them over the years, they have been met with limited success.”

Complementing work that is already being carried out worldwide on so-called ‘artificial leaf projects’, the USW research team is looking at new ways to significantly increase the amount of hydrogen that can be produced by using chemical processes to break down water into its constituent parts – hydrogen and oxygen.

“The process requires a complicated combination of metals and specifically-designed molecules called ligands, and making sure they are in exactly the correct positions for the whole process to work,” Dr Owen added.

“The aim of the research programme is to expand the efficiency of the process, which is currently quite limited. 

“This could obviously have a major impact globally. Being able to reduce water to its constituent components - oxygen and hydrogen - could produce an infinite source of clean energy, which is the ultimate aim of researchers working in this field.” 

The work being done by Dr Owen and his team is one of many projects being undertaken at USW’s Sustainable Environment Research Centre (SERC), which is led by Professor Alan Guwy.

“SERC is a groundbreaking research centre that brings together leaders from biology, engineering, chemistry, and physics, united in a single academic team,” he said.

“By working together, experts combine their resources and skills on a number of research projects to meet the energy security and environmental challenges we face today.

“SERC has an established programme of research into the role that hydrogen can play in the long-term as a reliable source of energy, which Dr Owen’s work will help to strengthen yet further.”

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