Northwestern professor creating photosynthesis-replicating ‘tree’

Emily Chin, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern’s Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI) is working to create a “tree” that replicates photosynthesis by using sunlight, water and concentrated carbon dioxide to produce a liquid fuel strong enough to power a car.

Prof. Dick Co, the founder of SOFI, said the institute started the project late last year because the technology was available and he wanted to prove it was possible to the scientific world.

“We know that it’s not science fiction,” he said. “Putting it together is certainly within our reach.”

When President Barack Obama visited campus in October, he mentioned the project, which elicited laughs from some audience members.

“I know that here at Northwestern, your researchers are working to convert sunlight into liquid fuel — which sounds impossible, or at least really hard,” Obama said in October.

Co hopes that in creating the tree he will prove sceptics wrong.

The device takes water and splits its two components: hydrogen and oxygen. It also concentrates carbon dioxide from the air to 400 parts per million so that it can be used in the photosynthesis process. The tree is then able to produce methanol, a liquid fuel for combustion engines, Co said.

“All the technology exists, and it’s our goal to build it here on campus,” Co said. “We’re taking our imagination to the next level.”

SOFI is reaching out to companies around the world to get the money and resources needed to build the tree. Co said he hopes to start building by April or May.

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