Scientists have taken a leaf from nature’s book in an effort to make clean gas found in fuels, pharmaceuticals and plastics.

A new device, or "artificial leaf", has been developed at the University of Cambridge which mimics photosynthesis, the process plants use to gather energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water.

At present, a gas known as syngas is produced from fossil fuels, but the new carbon-neutral solution that has been drawn up by scientists could eventually be used to develop a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol.

Professor Erwin Reisner and his team have managed to ensure the device does not release any additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“You may not have heard of syngas itself, but every day you consume products that were created using it,” explained Professor Reisner, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, a senior author of the research.

“Being able to produce it sustainably would be a critical step in closing the global carbon cycle and establishing a sustainable chemical and fuel industry.”

The generating capacity of photosynthesis is huge.

It is thought that the average rate of energy capture through the process globally is approximately 130 terawatts.

This is roughly eight times the current power consumption of the world's human population.

Scientists say they have managed to make their artificial leaf sustainable unlike others in the past because of the combination of materials and catalysts they used.

The overall process is achieved using two light absorbers, similar to the molecules in plants that harvest sunlight, which are combined with a catalyst made from cobalt.

When in water, one light absorber uses the catalyst to produce oxygen, while the other carries out the chemical reaction that reduces carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, forming the syngas mixture.

What is more, the artificial leaf is able to work just as well on cloudy and overcast days.

“This means you are not limited to using this technology just in warm countries, or only operating the process during the summer months,” said Virgil Andrei, a PhD student and first author of the paper, published in the Nature Materials journal.

“You could use it from dawn until dusk, anywhere in the world.”

He added: “We are aiming at sustainably creating products such as ethanol, which can readily be used as a fuel.

“It’s challenging to produce it in one step from sunlight using the carbon dioxide reduction reaction.

“But we are confident that we are going in the right direction, and that we have the right catalysts, so we believe we will be able to produce a device that can demonstrate this process in the near future.”

Professor Reisner continued: “What we’d like to do next, instead of first making syngas and then converting it into liquid fuel, is to make the liquid fuel in one step from carbon dioxide and water.

“There is a major demand for liquid fuels to power heavy transport, shipping and aviation sustainably.”

The development of the artificial leaf at Cambridge University comes after it was reported previously that scientists were attempting to mimic the way plants harness energy from the sun in order to make a more efficient renewable fuel.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) embarked on an £800,000 project to replicate photosynthesis.

Scientists said the process would be used to create hydrogen, which can be used as a zero-emission fuel for cars, or converted into green electricity.

It is hoped the method, which involves placing tiny solar panels on microbes to harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, will be a more efficient way of converting the sun's energy than currently exists.

The UEA, who is leading the project, said: "Reserves of fossil fuels are dwindling and fuel prices are rising, so it's really vital that we look to renewable energy supplies.

"Many renewable energy supplies such as sunlight, wind and the waves still remain largely untapped resources."

Cambridge and Leeds universities were also involved in that project.