Sustainable energy from photosynthesis: ‘Europe mustn't lag behind.'

Plants, algae and bacteria convert sunlight into chemical energy. In a workshop held by the Lorentz Center researchers will review the possibilities for using and imitating this process of photosynthesis, with a view to producing sustainable fuels. 

Solar Biofuels from Micro-organisms

Public lectures Friday 3 April:

The transition to green energy
13:30 – 14:15 EwaldBreunesse (Shell): Shell energy scenarios 2050
14:15 – 15:00 Lucia van Geuns (Clingendael): Energy and Sustainable Development
15:00 – 16:00 CarelCallenbach (Ingrepro): Algae specialties and biofuels
Venus: Lorentz Center, Oortgebouw, Niels Bohrweg 2, Leiden

U.S. Energy Minister

‘We have to make sure that Europe doesn't lag behind,' says Huub de Groot, Professor of Biophysical Organic Chemistry. 'In America things will start to move quickly now. The new American Energy Minister is Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, who was in on the ground floor of the Helios Energy Research Initiative in Berkeley. And in Japan, China and Australia a lot of effort is being put into R&D for converting energy from sunlight into fuel.  But many European governments are still too hesitant.'

Professor Huub de Groot.

Hydrogen and methanol

Plants, algae and bacteria absorb sunlight using special antennae. They transport the solar energy to a reaction centre where it is converted into chemical energy.  These are often carbohydrates, but in the case of algae and some bacteria, they may include hydrogen and other chemicals such as oil. It is a complex and ingenious process at nanometer level that has only become understood in recent years, using improved techniques such as nuclear-magnetic resonance, laser spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography or microscopes that can scan proteins. 

Artificial leaves

Together with their research group, De Groot and his colleague Thijs Aartsma, Professor of Biophysics, are studying the mechanism of photosynthesis, for example the working of enzymes which function as natural catalysors for the transport of electrons.  It may be fundamental, but it also has an important societal function: the direct, efficient production of clean energy. Leiden research works in two ways: improving photosynthesis in modified living organisms, and imitating this process in so-called artificial leaves.  

Professor Thijs Aartsma.

Solar Biofuels Workshop

Research focused on a large-scale change towards sustainable energy using photosynthesis can only be carried out in an international context. Together with colleagues from Wageningen and Amsterdam, Aartsma and De Groot organised a workshop on Solar Biofuels from Microorganisms, held from from 30 March to Friday 3 April.

European Science Foundation

European researchers have already joined forces and formed consortia in the EU's Sixth and Seventh Framework Programmes. De Groot and Aartsma are co-authors of the Science Policy Briefing of the European Science Foundation, entitled 'Harnessing Solar Energy for the Production of Clean Fuel', which appeared in the autumn of 2008. This document explains where - provided there is funding - fundamental breakthroughs are to be expected in the coming years in understanding the mechanism of photosynthesis, and how these breakthroughs can lead to a new, sustainable and scaleable energy supply. 

National governments

Funding for research and development has to come from national governments.  The “Towards BioSolar Cells” consortium has been started in the Netherlands to promote this. It will be a process lasting decades, whereby economic sacrifices are unavoidable, and which has a number of significant social and ethical aspects.  De Groot: ‘Not only does it cost a great deal of money and not only do society and the economy have to be organised differently, but government authorities and the public have to be aware that much of the research will not generate immediate results.  But this is how a bottom-up process works; graceful failure, that's something we can learn from.’


‘But, in fact we don't have any choice,' says De Groot. ‘We can't afford to lose any more time.  By 2050, energy use worldwide will have doubled. Fossil fuels are running out and are also a source of pollution.  Biofuels like corn and palm oil are produced at the cost of food crops and result in monocultures. There's no way wind and nuclear energy will be able to meet the needs.  Natural photosynthesis offers possibilities for a sustainable and CO2-neutral energy source.' 

Honours Class

Workshops organised by the Lorentz Center bring together researchers from all corners of the world to exchange ideas at the highest level on specific research themes.  The workshop on biofuels will also attended by bachelor's students from the From Solar to Fuel Honours Class. De Groot likes to throw students in at the deep end, and to bring them into contact with the cream of scientific research.  'It won't be easy, certainly not for law students taking part in this rather technical honours class. But they are bright and motivated and they will first have a preparatory session.' 

People in the field
A further reason for involving students is the societal urgency of the research. 'Young people in particular have to be convinced of the need for rapid action. This is why the Friday afternoon session is open to the public. During the week we will be involved in what is going on at molecular level, but that shouldn't be separated from the practical environment.  On Friday there will be presentations by people in the field:  Ewald Breunesse from Shell, Lucia van Geuns from the Clingendael International Energy Programme and Carel Callenbach from Ingrepro, an algae-producing company.’

White Paper

The web page of Huub de Groot includes the White Paper (pdf) that he wrote with Dr Anjali Panjit, also from Leiden, and Professor Alfred Holzwarth from Mülheim. The clear message of this White Paper is that 'we can't afford to lose any more time.' It also comprises some fifteen chapters explaining the research problems which should be given priority, from 'How is water broken down into hydrogen and oxygen?'- a very complex chemical reaction - to 'How to make a computer model of the complexity of biological systems and evolutionary mechanisms.'

More info


Earlier in the Newsletter

(31 March 2009)

Last Modified: 14-05-2009