For decades, scientists have been trying to create a fuel by mimicking photosynthesis: the miraculous way that plants make their own food by borrowing energy from sunlight. Now researchers at Emory University have made a breakthrough discovery that may finally turn that dream into reality, according to Science Daily.

They have developed the most potent known catalyst for water oxidation, an essential tool required for generating clean hydrogen fuel using only water and sunlight. The development of such a catalyst has been the single biggest roadblock to making this technology feasible. 

Until now, all of the catalysts for water oxidation (WOC) developed by labs have had significant limitations, such as being too heterogeneous (not uniform enough in composition, making them inefficient and messy), containing too many organic components that burn up quickly, or being based on a rare element. But the catalyst developed by the Emory researchers is homogeneous, carbon-free and it is based on the element cobalt, which is cheap and abundant. 

"[It] has really upped the standard from the other known homogeneous WOCs," said chemist Craig Hill, whose lab led the effort. "It's like a home run compared to a base hit."

One of the reasons that developing a stable WOC is such a big hurdle is that the catalyst actually used by green plants "is about the least stable catalyst in nature, and one of the shortest lived, because it's doing one of the hardest jobs," noted Hill. Thus, the catalyst developed by Hill and his colleagues is actually far more stable than the one found in nature.

Now that this problem is a step closer to being solved, scientists can begin to refocus on the bigger picture again: creating a viable, economical, clean fuel through photosynthesis. By using sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, the hydrogen can be used as fuel.

It may sound too good to be true, but the practical reality is not that far off. If you would like to follow the progess of the research at Emory, you can do so at their Renewable Energy Center website.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Scientists mimic photosynthesis to create new 'solar fuel'
Sunlight in the form of fuel? A breakthrough new discovery brings science one step closer to creating clean hydrogen fuel using only water and sunlight.