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A handful of small companies such as HyperSolar in Santa Barbara, California, and Proton OnSite, in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City, already are designing commercial products based on artificial photosynthesis. Larger companies hang back but several are taking an interest, including Total — one of the world’s five largest oil companies — and a division of Shell, which are partners in Northwestern’s Solar Fuels Institute.   

The first of these products will make the leap from lab to consumer market between 2020 and 2025. Some developments, such as the photosynthetic production of industrial chemicals, will remain in the background, though no less important. The key driver of the research will remain the quest for cheap hydrogen fuel, which will be ready for the growing fuel-cell car market a decade from now. 

The research boosts pressures pushing the petroleum industry out of the economic and investment mainstream and toward the margins.

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