Chemists create an “artificial photosynthesis” system that is ten times more efficient than existing systems

A study by six University of Chicago chemists demonstrated an innovative new system for artificial photosynthesis that is orders of magnitude more productive than previous synthetic systems. Above, a technical illustration of the process. Credit: Peter Allen

Over the past two centuries, humans have relied on fossil fuels to concentrate energy. Hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis packed into a comfortable, energy-dense substance. But this supply is limited, and the consumption of fossil fuels has an enormous negative impact on the Earth’s climate.

“The biggest challenge that many people don’t realize is that even nature doesn’t have a solution for how much energy we use,” said University of Chicago chemist Wenpin Lin. And he even said that photosynthesis isn’t that good: “We’re going to have to do a better job than nature, and that’s scary.”

One possible option that scientists are exploring is “artificial photosynthesis” — reworking the plant’s system to make our own fuels. However, the chemical equipment on one sheet is incredibly complex, and it is not easy to turn it into our own.

a stimulating nature A study of six University of Chicago chemists shows an innovative new system for artificial photosynthesis that is by volume more productive than previous synthetic systems. Unlike regular photosynthesis, which produces carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water, artificial photosynthesis can produce ethanol, methane, or other fuels.

Although it still has a long way to go before it becomes a way to fuel your car every day, this method gives scientists a new direction to explore — and, in the shorter term, may be useful for producing other chemicals.

“This is a huge improvement over current systems, but just as important, we were able to establish a very clear understanding of how this synthetic system works at the molecular level, which has not been accomplished before,” said Lin, the James Frank Professor of Chemistry at the University of Chicago and senior author of the study.

“We’ll need something else.”

“Without natural photosynthesis, we wouldn’t be here,” Lin said. “It made the oxygen we breathe on Earth and makes the food we eat.” “But it won’t be efficient enough to fuel us to drive cars; so we’ll need something else.”

The problem is that photosynthesis is built to make carbohydrates, which are great for fueling us, but not our cars, which need more focused energy. So researchers looking to create alternatives to fossil fuels must re-engineer the process to produce more energy-intensive fuels, such as ethanol or methane.

In nature, photosynthesis is carried out by several very complex groups of proteins and pigments. They absorb water and carbon dioxide, separating molecules, and rearranging atoms to form carbohydrates, which are long chains of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon compounds. However, scientists need to reformulate the reactions to produce a different arrangement using only hydrogen surrounding a CH-rich carbonic core.4also known as methane.

This re-engineering is much more difficult than it looks. People have been playing around with it for decades, trying to get closer to nature’s efficiency.

Lin and his lab team thought they might try adding something that artificial photosynthesis systems haven’t yet included: amino acids.

The team started with a type of material called a metal-organic framework, or MOF, which is a class of compounds made up of metal ions bound together by organic linking molecules. Then they designed MOFs as a single layer, in order to provide the maximum surface area for chemical reactions, and submerged the whole thing in a solution that included a cobalt compound to move electrons around. Finally, they added amino acids to the MOFs, and experimented to see which worked best.

They were able to make improvements to two halves of the reaction: the process that breaks down water and the one that adds electrons and protons to carbon dioxide. In both cases, the amino acids helped increase the efficiency of the reaction.

Even with greatly improved performance, artificial photosynthesis has a long way to go before it can produce enough fuel to be suitable for widespread use. “Where we are now, you will need to increase demand by several orders of magnitude to produce enough methane for our consumption,” Lin said.

Penetration can also be widely applied in other chemical reactions; You need to produce a lot of fuel to have an effect, but smaller amounts of some molecules, such as pharmaceutical feedstocks and nylon, among other things, can be very useful.

“A lot of these basic processes are the same,” Lin said. “If you develop good chemistry, it can be connected to many systems.”

more information:
Guangxu Lan et al, Active biomimetic sites on monolayered MOFs for artificial photosynthesis, stimulating nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038 / s41929-022-00865-5

Presented by the University of Chicago

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