Bionic particles self-assemble to capture light

May 21, 2014 by Kate Mcalpine
Bionic particles self-assemble to capture light
Assembly of cadmium telluride nanoparticles(CdTe NPs) and cytochrome C (CytC). Credit: Nature Communications

Inspired by fictional cyborgs like Terminator, a team of researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Pittsburgh has made the first bionic particles from semiconductors and proteins.

These particles recreate the heart of the process that allows plants to turn sunlight into fuel.

"Human endeavors to transform the energy of sunlight into biofuels using either artificial materials or whole organisms have low efficiency," said Nicholas Kotov, the Florence B. Cejka Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, who led the experiment.

A bionic approach could change that.

The bionic particles blend the strengths of inorganic materials, which can readily convert light energy to electron energy, with biological molecules whose chemical functions have been highly developed through evolution.

The team first designed the particles to combine , a commonly used in solar cells, with cytochrome C, a protein used by plants to transport electrons in photosynthesis. With this combination, the semiconductor can turn a ray from the sun into an electron, and the cytochrome C can pull that electron away for use in chemical reactions that could clean up pollution or produce fuel, for instance.

To drive reactions, the molecules of cytochrome C and nanoparticles of cadmium telluride must exchange electrons. This process would be most efficient if the components were connected, so the team designed a process that would allow them to self-assemble into superparticles.

U-M's Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Professor of Chemical Engineering, who led the simulations, compares the self-assembly to the way that the surfaces of living cells form, using attractive forces that are strong at small scales but weaken as the structure grows. Kotov's group confirmed that the and proteins naturally assemble into larger particles, roughly 100 nanometers (0.0001 millimeters) in diameter.

The team built on this formula for their test reaction. They turned the pollutant nitrate into nitrite and oxygen, demonstrating that the bionic particles could harness sunlight to drive . For this process, the semiconductor and cytochrome C needed help from other enzymes, which the team incorporated into the superparticles.

"We merged biological and inorganic in a way that leverages the attributes of both to get something better than either alone," Glotzer said.

Powered by electrons from the cytochrome C, the enzyme could remove oxygen from nitrate molecules.

Like the structures that accomplish photosynthesis in plants, the bionic particles took a beating from handling the energy. Nature constantly renews these working parts in plants, and through self-assembly, the particles may also be able to renew themselves.

Kotov said they could potentially work in a cycle that allowed the particles time to reassemble after wearing down with use. He explained that the self-assembly occurs because the two types of are of similar size and charge.

"If the inorganic nanoparticles are too small they will not assemble. Too big, and they unravel the proteins," he said. "And, if the nanoparticles and proteins have opposite charges, they form big clumps and fall out of the solution."

Glotzer said that now that they understand how the assembly phenomena works, "we can find design principles both to optimize conditions and to extend our findings to other types of nanoparticle-protein systems."

One goal is the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into natural gas, which would allow much of the current energy infrastructure to continue working with no net carbon emissions. But the team considers more than just artificial photosynthesis applications.

"These design principles can be used to guide future designs for other bionic systems, starting from the primary building blocks of biological organisms and inorganic machines," Kotov said. "It is very possible that Terminator of the future would need to be constructed starting from such building blocks."

Explore further: Engineers discover nanoscale balancing act that mirrors forces at work in living systems

More information: "Terminal supraparticle assemblies from similarly charged protein molecules and nanoparticles." Jai Il Park, et al. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3593 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4593. Received 17 December 2013 Accepted 07 March 2014 Published 20 May 2014

Related Stories

Nanoparticle networks' design enhanced by theory

February 27, 2014

For close to two decades, Cornell scientists have developed processes for using polymers to self-assemble inorganic nanoparticles into porous structures that could revolutionize electronics, energy and more.

Pinwheel 'living' crystals and the origin of life

February 25, 2014

Simply making nanoparticles spin coaxes them to arrange themselves into what University of Michigan researchers call 'living rotating crystals' that could serve as a nanopump. They may also, incidentally, shed light on the ...

Promising news for solar fuels from Berkeley Lab researchers

March 7, 2014

There's promising news from the front on efforts to produce fuels through artificial photosynthesis. A new study by Berkeley Lab researchers at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) shows that nearly 90-percent ...

Recommended for you

Atomic blasting creates new devices to measure nanoparticles

December 14, 2017

Like sandblasting at the nanometer scale, focused beams of ions ablate hard materials to form intricate three-dimensional patterns. The beams can create tiny features in the lateral dimensions—length and width, but to create ...

Engineers create plants that glow

December 13, 2017

Imagine that instead of switching on a lamp when it gets dark, you could read by the light of a glowing plant on your desk.

Faster, more accurate cancer detection using nanoparticles

December 12, 2017

Using light-emitting nanoparticles, Rutgers University-New Brunswick scientists have invented a highly effective method to detect tiny tumors and track their spread, potentially leading to earlier cancer detection and more ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.