Scientists in Canberra have identified a process used by plants which they say could be harnessed to make a limitless supply of cheap renewable hydrogen fuel and position Australia as a world-leader.
The scientists, from the Australian National University, have identified for the first time an important photosynthetic process that enables plants to split water cells into hydrogen and oxygen components.
Lead researcher Dr Nick Cox said if humans could split water the way nature did, society would have an endless supply of cheap hydrogen fuel for transportation, without the carbon emissions that contributed to climate change.
"Enough sunlight hits the Earth in a single hour to power all human activity for over a year," Dr Cox said.
"Plants use this harvested energy to split water and make complex carbohydrates, which provide food for the plant to grow and thrive.
"This process also enriches our atmosphere with oxygen for animals, including humans, to breathe.
"Copying this process from nature would lead to new and improved renewable energy storage technologies."
Dr Cox said it was difficult to say how long it might take before researchers found a way to use nature's water-splitting recipe in a way that enabled humans to create endless hydrogen fuel supplies.
But he said great progress had been made as part of a study the university co-led with Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion.
"One of the innovative things we've done is we've essentially developed new techniques to look at this system," Dr Cox said.
"It's done using something called electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy and it's a bit like an MRI in a hospital. In a hospital, you're looking at relatively large objects, but we're now looking at objects that are about the size of a nanometer, so that's one-billionth of a metre."
Dr Cox is leading the establishment of an electron paramagnetic resonance facility at the Australian National University.
Funded by the Australian Research Council, it was already about 80 per cent functional and Dr Cox hoped it would be fully functional by the end of the year.
Dr Maria Chrysina, from the Max Planck Institute, said the study had revealed that halfway through a photosynthesis reaction cycle, a key enzyme needed to "breathe" in order to allow access to water.
In order to do this, the enzyme stretched "like a concertina", she said.
Energy Change Institute director Professor Ken Baldwin said Australia was a small player in the generation of renewable hydrogen at the moment, but this research could change things.
"This can be put into the context of Australia becoming a renewable energy superpower and harnessing the energy from the sun, in this case, to create hydrogen," Professor Baldwin said.
"We could play a major role in the export of hydrogen to the world's economies based on our advantage in renewables.
"We're a small player at the moment, but these types of transformative hydrogen processes could place us more towards the leading edge in the future."
Australia is already looking to develop a national hydrogen strategy. Chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel is chairing a working group that is aiming to deliver the strategy this year, in time for it to be implemented in 2020.