The University of East Anglia scientists are taking inspiration from the way that plants harness energy from the sun to develop more efficient renewable energy.

A £800,000 research project will artificially replicate photosynthesis – the process by which plants transform sunlight into energy to help them grow.

The energy created will be used to produce hydrogen – a zero emission fuel which can power vehicles or be transformed into electricity.

It is thought that this method of harnessing the sun’s energy will be far more efficient than existing solar converters.

The research will be undertaken with colleagues from the University of Leeds and the University of Cambridge. It is funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Lead researcher prof Julea Butt, from UEA’s school of Chemistry and school of Biological Sciences, said, “Reserves of fossil fuels are dwindling, and fuel prices are rising, so it’s really vital that we look to renewable energy supplies.

“Many renewable energy supplies, such as sunlight, wind and the waves, remain largely untapped resources. This is mainly due to the challenges that exist in converting these energy forms into fuels from which energy can be released on demand. For example when we want to switch on a light, boil water, play computer games, or drive a car.

“We have been inspired by natural plant processes. During plant photosynthesis, fuels are made naturally from the energy in sunlight.

“Light absorption by the green chlorophyll pigments generates an energised electron that is directed, along chains of metal centres, to catalysts that make sugars.

“We will build a system for artificial photosynthesis by placing tiny solar panels on microbes. These will harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well advanced.

“We imagine that our photocatalysts will prove versatile and that with slight modification they will be able to harness solar energy for the manufacture of carbon-based fuels, drugs and fine chemicals.”