New research sheds light on photosynthesis and creation of solar fuel

September 2, 2015 by Jo Napolitano, Argonne National Laboratory
Credit: Marina Shemesh/public domain

Refined by nature over a billion years, photosynthesis has given life to the planet, providing an environment suitable for the smallest, most primitive organism all the way to our own species.

While scientists have been studying and mimicking the natural phenomenon in the laboratory for years, understanding how to replicate the chemical process behind it has largely remained a mystery—until now.

Recent experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have afforded researchers a greater understanding of how to manipulate , putting humankind one step closer to harvesting "," a clean energy source that could one day help replace coal and natural gas.

Lisa M. Utschig, a bioinorganic chemist at Argonne for 20 years, said storing in chemical bonds such as those found in hydrogen can provide a robust and . Burning hydrogen as fuel creates no pollutants, making it much less harmful to the environment than common fossil fuel sources.

"We are taking sunlight, which is abundant, and we are using water to make a fuel," said Utschig, who oversaw the project. "It's pretty remarkable." Unlike the energy derived from solar panels, which must be used quickly, hydrogen, a solar fuel, can be stored.

Sarah Soltau, a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne who conducted much of the research, said "the key finding of Argonne's most recent research is that we were able to actually watch the processes of electrons going from a light-absorbing molecule to a catalyst that produces solar fuel. This piece of knowledge will help us develop a system to work more efficiently than the one we can create now, and, years on, may allow us to replace oil and gas."

Argonne researchers attached a protein from spinach to both a light-absorbing molecule (called a photosensitizer) and to a hydrogen-producing catalyst. The protein helped stabilize both the catalyst and photosensitizer, allowing scientists to observe direct electron flow between the two for the first time.

Researchers used transient optical spectroscopy, a method for detecting very fast changes in the light absorption of a molecule when illuminated with a laser pulse, to observe changes in the color of a compound as it undergoes chemical reactions. They also employed , another form of spectroscopy, to study where electrons move inside a molecule.

"We don't just see the result, the hydrogen," Utschig said. "We are peering into this system. We are able to really see how it works and what the essential parts are. Once you know that, the next time you try and design something, you can make it better because you understand it."

Argonne has been studying photosynthesis since the 1960s but this particular experiment has been pursued for about a year. Soltau said scientists may be several years from using these techniques to generate storable solar fuels to power cars or households, but that this could be made possible once researchers learn ways to make the process more efficient.

"We need to look at ways to make last longer," she said. "Right now, the systems don't have the stability necessary to last weeks or months."

The scientists' findings were published in a paper titled "Aqueous light driven hydrogen production by a Ru–ferredoxin–Co biohybrid" in the journal Chemical Communications.

Explore further: Reaction to convert solar energy to fuel is 50 times faster with a simple change in the solvent

More information: "Aqueous light driven hydrogen production by a Ru–ferredoxin–Co biohybrid" Chem. Commun., 2015,51, 10628-10631 DOI: 10.1039/C5CC03006D

Related Stories

New step towards future production of solar fuels

January 26, 2015

One way of storing solar energy is to transform the energy directly into a fuel. Researchers at Uppsala University have shown a reaction which makes the process of creating fuel from solar energy more efficient and less energy ...

Another milestone in hybrid artificial photosynthesis

August 25, 2015

A team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)'s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developing a bioinorganic hybrid approach to artificial photosynthesis have achieved another milestone. Having generated ...

Supersonic electrons could produce future solar fuel

March 2, 2015

Researchers from institutions including Lund University have taken a step closer to producing solar fuel using artificial photosynthesis. In a new study, they have successfully tracked the electrons' rapid transit through ...

Recommended for you

Researchers report breakthrough in ice-repelling materials

January 15, 2019

Icy weather is blamed for multibillion dollar losses every year in the United States, including delays and damage related to air travel, infrastructure and power generation and transmission facilities. Finding effective, ...

Research finds serious problems with forensic software

January 15, 2019

New research from North Carolina State University and the University of South Florida finds significant flaws in recently released forensic software designed to assess the age of individuals based on their skeletal remains. ...

The secret to Rembrandt's impasto unveiled

January 15, 2019

Impasto is thick paint laid on the canvas in an amount that makes it stand from the surface. The relief of impasto increases the perceptibility of the paint by increasing its light-reflecting textural properties. Scientists ...

Researchers gain control over soft-molecule synthesis

January 14, 2019

By gaining control over shape, size and composition during synthetic molecule assembly, researchers can begin to probe how these factors influence the function of soft materials. Finding these answers could help advance virology, ...

Marine bacterium sheds light on control of toxic metals

January 14, 2019

An ocean-dwelling bacterium has provided fresh insights into how cells protect themselves from the toxic effects of metal ions such as iron and copper, in research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

viko_mx
1 / 5 (1) Sep 08, 2015
""Refined by nature over a billion years, photosynthesis has given life to the planet, providing an environment suitable for the smallest, most primitive organism all the way to our own species."

The process of photosynthesis require the set of complex organic structures that must be synchronized and operate together with each other. This structures is impassible to emerge simultaneously in one place by random events. Each of this essential components does not have sense to exist if the others components do not exists. Again the paradigm of irreducible complexity which means that certain functionality can be provided only by minimum set of components (and not less than this minimum) which work together with one another in a common direction.

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.