New research published in the journal Nature Communications detail how a team of scientists from the University of Copenhagen have discovered natural process that can break down plant biomass.
The researchers call it ‘reverse photosynthesis’—where photosynthesis builds plant material, the opposite takes place in this process. Solar rays break plant biomass down with the help of a specific enzyme, with the end product possibly being used for chemicals, biofuels and other products.
This discovery (given its capacity to speed up production, lower energy consumption, and significantly reduce pollution) could revolutionize industrial production.
"We use the term 'reverse photosynthesis' because the enzymes use atmospheric oxygen and the Sun's rays to break down and transform carbon bonds, in plants among other things, instead of building plants and producing oxygen as is typically understood with photosynthesis," says Postdoc Klaus Benedikt Møllers.
"It has always been right beneath our noses, and yet no one has ever taken note: photosynthesis by way of the Sun doesn't just allow things to grow, the same principles can be applied to break plant matter down, allowing the release of chemical substances. In other words, direct sunlight drives chemical processes. The immense energy in solar light can be used so that processes can take place without additional energy inputs," says Professor Claus Felby.
According to researchers, this discovery, because of how efficient it is, can produce biofuels or biochemicals for the production common materials such as plastics, which take 24 hours to make, in as little as 10 minutes.
The process also has the potential to break down the chemical bonds between carbon and hydrogen, which can create plant-based methane into methanol (following ambient conditions).
Still in its early stages, the study will require more research and testing to fully understand its potential and how these will impact our society—but its promise is evident. The team notes that this is one of the greatest discoveries in the field in years.