Reverse Photosynthesis Holds Clue in Making Biofuels

First Posted: Apr 06, 2016 12:51 PM EDT

German researchers may have stumbled upon a way that speeds up the process of churning fuel from biomass. In a recent discovery, it was found that the process that enables plants to grow also aids in their faster breakdown by enzymes during biofuel production.

Scientists made the discovery that monooxygenases, enzymes which are already being used to create biofuel and bioplastics, work more actively and efficiently with sunlight exposure. Consequently, biomass which includes non-food plant sources such as grass or wood, is broken down faster by the enzymes to release sugars from plant fibers, leading to ethanol fermentation. The whole process takes considerably more time in the absence of sunlight.

The use of sunlight acts as a trigger that speeds up the process manifold because the enzymes then work faster to break down biomass. The further addition of chlorophyll, plant molecules that help in converting sunlight to energy, makes the whole process more efficient. In fact, the scientists reported that the whole activity, which usually takes close to a full day, could be completed successfully in just 10 minutes. "Introducing lights opens up so much more energy and it doesn't cost you a dime," said Claus Felby, University of Copenhagen professor.

The researchers have applied the term reverse photosynthesis to their new discovery; because the hitherto unknown fact helped in boosting the role of enzymes in breaking down plants faster, apart from just enabling them to grow, as it was believed until now.

As a result of the latest findings, the scientists from Germany have collaborated with a Danish biotech company to conduct the process in a production facility. Felby mentioned that if the technique is found to be commercially viable in the future, plastics and fuel manufacturing facilities will have to be redesigned to allow the right amount of sunlight to reach the plants inside.

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