New technique combines organic and synthetic tech to harness the sun’s energy

Plants apparently have a lot to teach us about green energy.

Researchers around the world are investing time and, well, energy into a process known as artificial photosynthesis. It’s a lot like how it sounds. Engineered devices take inputs like sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide (CO2), and churn out carbohydrates and oxygen, which can be used as fuel.

If successful, artificial photosynthesis would be a win-win solution — it could provide a renewable source of energy and make use of CO2 sequestered from fossil fuel plants. We’re not there yet but progress over the last decade has put renewed steam into the scientific pursuit of an efficient artificial photosynthesis technique.

Now, researchers from the University of Cambridge have pioneered a similar method for harnessing the sun’s energy. By combining organic and synthetic parts in a process called “semi-artificial” photosynthesis, they’ve developed a proof of concept that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen using modified photosynthetic mechanisms from plants. Their hope is that the technique can be applied to help bolster solar energy systems. They’ve detailed their research in a paper recently published in the journal Nature Energy.

“Semi-artificial photosynthesis is an emerging field that bridges synthetic biology and materials science for sustainable energy conversion and storage,” Katarzyna Sokół, a Cambridge Ph.D. student and first author of the paper, told Digital Tends. “This new field combines beneficial components of artificial systems such as electrodes, nanomaterials, synthetic dyes, and polymers with nature’s biocatalysts, such as enzymes, for the synthesis of solar fuels, such as hydrogen.”

The problem with straightforward artificial photosynthesis is that it’s often limited by the use of synthetic catalysts to split hydrogen and oxygen. These can be both toxic and costly. In the Cambridge study, the researchers use organic enzymes to overcome this obstacle.

The semi-artificial photosynthetic device combines synthetic parts that are easy to tune and manipulate with relatively efficient organic catalysts found in plants. The result is “is a model system to construct semi-artificial photosynthesis devices relevant to solar energy conversion and storage in the form of fuels, such as hydrogen,” Sokół explained.

She added that the system is a proof of concept and is too fragile for current large-scale solar technology applications. Moving forward, the research team will investigate whether they can replace the fragile enzyme with more robust and stable photosynthetic cells.

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