Artificial photosynthesis could help make fuels, plastics, and medicine

May 3, 2015

A team of scientists has invented a new artificial photosynthetic system that could one day reduce industry’s dependence on fossil fuel-derived energy by powering it with solar energy and bacteria.

In the ACS journal Nano Letters, they describe a novel system that converts light and carbon dioxide into building blocks for plastics, pharmaceuticals and fuels — all without electricity.

Plants use photosynthesis to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to make their own fuel in the form of carbohydrates. Globally, this natural process harvests 130 Terawatts of solar energy to generate up to 115 billion metric tons of biomass annually. If scientists could figure out how to harness just a fraction of that amount to make fuels and power industrial processes, they could dramatically cut our reliance on fossil fuels.

However, such an approach has not been fully realized owing to a host of unmet basic scientific challenges, say the scientists at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, and University of California, Berkeley.

The groups developed a stand-alone solar-energy conversion process that combines the strengths of semiconductor nanodevices and bacterium-based biocatalysts. A nanowire array captures light, and with the help of bacteria, converts carbon dioxide into acetate. The bacteria directly interact with light-absorbing materials, which the researchers say is the first example of “microbial photoelectrosynthesis.”

Another kind of bacteria then transforms the acetate into chemical precursors that can be used to make a wide range of everyday products from antibiotics to paints, replacing fossil fuels and electrical power.

The authors acknowledge funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Lawrence Berkeley National LaboratoryHoward Hughes Medical Institute, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Abstract of Nanowire–Bacteria Hybrids for Unassisted Solar Carbon Dioxide Fixation to Value-Added Chemicals

Direct solar-powered production of value-added chemicals from CO2 and H2O, a process that mimics natural photosynthesis, is of fundamental and practical interest. In natural photosynthesis, CO2 is first reduced to common biochemical building blocks using solar energy, which are subsequently used for the synthesis of the complex mixture of molecular products that form biomass. Here we report an artificial photosynthetic scheme that functions via a similar two-step process by developing a biocompatible light-capturing nanowire array that enables a direct interface with microbial systems. As a proof of principle, we demonstrate that a hybrid semiconductor nanowire–bacteria system can reduce CO2 at neutral pH to a wide array of chemical targets, such as fuels, polymers, and complex pharmaceutical precursors, using only solar energy input. The high-surface-area silicon nanowire array harvests light energy to provide reducing equivalents to the anaerobic bacterium, Sporomusa ovata, for the photoelectrochemical production of acetic acid under aerobic conditions (21% O2) with low overpotential (η < 200 mV), high Faradaic efficiency (up to 90%), and long-term stability (up to 200 h). The resulting acetate (∼6 g/L) can be activated to acetyl coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA) by genetically engineered Escherichia coli and used as a building block for a variety of value-added chemicals, such as n-butanol, polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) polymer, and three different isoprenoid natural products. As such, interfacing biocompatible solid-state nanodevices with living systems provides a starting point for developing a programmable system of chemical synthesis entirely powered by sunlight.


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