This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

February 11, 2004

Researchers Gain Insight on How Plants Split Water

Photosynthesis—the process plants use to produce energy-rich carbohydrates using sunlight—is the basis for all plant life on Earth, but the process remains poorly understood. At the heart of the photosynthetic process is a simple reaction that could be the key to our energy future: the technique that splits water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. In a plant, the oxygen is released to the atmosphere and the hydrogen is used to help produce the complex sugars that fuel the cells throughout the plant. But if people can replicate the process, the hydrogen could instead be used to fuel our vehicles and provide heat and power for our buildings.

On February 5th, researchers at Imperial College London announced they had moved a step forward in understanding the water-splitting process, using high-resolution X-ray crystallography to study two protein complexes that are crucial for photosynthesis. The researchers found that one of the protein structures forms a cube-shaped region with four oxygen atoms, three manganese atoms, and one calcium atom at the corners. An additional manganese atom attaches to one of the four oxygen atoms, creating a highly reactive site that is key to the water-splitting reaction. The researchers believe their findings could one day make it possible to recreate the process on an industrial scale, providing a new way to produce hydrogen fuel. The research findings were published in the February 5th edition of the journal Science. See the Imperial College press release.