The school also plans to enter EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge, a contest sponsored by DoE, General Motors, Natural Resources Canada and Argonne National Laboratory. Researchers plan to convert a GM Saturn View to be powered by fuel cells.
Separately, ESF is funding long-term research to develop artificial photosynthesis that mimics the ability of plants to directly convert sunlight to biofuels. Research is focusing on cyanobacteria, which the foundation claims predates the green leaf by 3.7 billion years in its ability to convert sunlight into biofuels.
Cyanobacteria use water molecules as a source of electrons to transport energy from sunlight while converting carbon dioxide into oxygen in the process. This light-harvesting ability was sequestered by early proto-plants, which ingests the cyanobacteria for use in photosynthetic conversion of sunlight energy. In the process, oxygen is produced as a byproduct.
ESF scientists claim that by mimicking the actions of cyanobacteria, different useful fuels can be synthesized from water and sunlight, including hydrogen, alcohols and hydrocarbons of natural gas and oil.
So far, small-scale demonstrations have proven the feasibility of artificial photosynthesis, but Euoropean scientists predict that the higher efficiencies required to commercialize the technology will take from 10 to 20 years to develop.
ESF scientists are pursuing two parallel tracks: genetically engineered plants and bacteria that perform the desired conversions; and electronic devices that mimic photosynthesis.
Electronic devices could be mass produced, but genetically engineered plants and bacteria could rival them through biological reproduction. The largest remaining engineering hurdle to both approaches, according to ESF scientists, is a precise understanding of how plants produce complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats from the splitting of water into hydrogen, oxygen and electrons.