A trio of UK universities have been awarded £800,000 to fund research into how photosynthesis can help develop more efficient renewable energy.

Scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), University of Leeds and the University of Cambridge will use the funds provided by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council to explore the idea of artificially replicating photosynthesis to produce hydrogen.

Lead researcher Professor Julea Butt, from UEA’s school of Chemistry and school of Biological Sciences, explained: “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.”

Professor Butt explained why the research project was important, stating: “Reserves of fossil fuels are dwindling, and fuel prices are rising, so it’s is 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.”