Scientists at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, plan to replicate plants’ ability to turn sunlight into energy – photosynthesis – in order to harvest hydrogen, a zero-emissions fuel.

The university’s scientists speculate that this process of harvesting the sun’s energy will be far more efficient than existing solar converters.

“We have been inspired by natural plant processes,” said lead researcher Professor Julea Butt of the university’s School of Chemistry and School of Biological Sciences.

“During plant photosynthesis, fuels are made naturally from the energy in sunlight. Light absorption by the green chlorophyll pigments generates an energized electron that is directed, along chains of metal centers, to catalysts that make sugars.

“We will build a system for artificial photosynthesis by placing tiny solar panels on microbes. These will harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, from which the technologies to release energy on demand are well advanced,” said Butt.

A contribution of £800,000 ($1.26 million) from the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council will help fund the project. Researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of Cambridge will assist in the study.

Gathering hydrogen – which can be used as fuel in vehicles like the forthcoming hydrogen-powered Hyundai ix35 Tucson ­– from artificial photosynthesis is an on-going endeavor by the scientific community.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Energy awarded funding to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Rochester in New York state to pursue a project of artificial photosynthesis in order to harvest hydrogen for use as a clean fuel.