Scientists Trigger Artificial Photosynthesis

blue LEDs

Researchers have developed a method to trigger photosynthesis using synthetic materials and blue light. (Photo credit: Mifid/Shutterstock)

Researchers have successfully triggered artificial photosynthesis in a synthetic material, producing both clean air and energy at the same time. This process may one day be used to in the development of technology that simultaneously reduces greenhouse gases and produces clean energy. 

This breakthrough technology was developed by scientists at the University of Central Florida, led by Assistant Professor Fernando Uribe-Romo.

“This work is a breakthrough,” Fernando Uribe-Romo said in a press release about the research. “Tailoring materials that will absorb a specific color of light is very difficult from the scientific point of view, but from the societal point of view we are contributing to the development of a technology that can help reduce greenhouse gases.”

Uribe-Romo and his team of students used a synthetic material called metal-organic frameworks, also known as MOFs, to break down carbon dioxide into harmless organic materials. Recall that, in the process of photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into food energy. In artificial photosynthesis, carbon dioxide and sunlight are converted into solar energy.

The challenge the researchers faced was how to trigger photosynthesis. While ultraviolet (UV) rays have enough energy to trigger the chemical reaction in common materials, only 4 percent of the light Earth receives from the sun comes in the form of UV rays. In contrast, few materials pick up light in the visible range (violet to red wavelengths) in amounts large enough to trigger a chemical change.

Uribe-Romo and his team of researchers used titanium (a common nontoxic metal) and added a group of organic molecules called N-alkyl-aminoterephthalates, to act as “light-harvesting antennae.” These light-harvesting molecules were designed to pick up certain wavelengths of light, and in this case, they were designed to capture blue light.

Next, the scientists built a photoreactor that utilized strips of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs). They fed measured amounts of carbon dioxide into the photoreactor, and then monitored what happened. The researchers found that the chemical reaction worked and the carbon dioxide was reduced into formate and formamides, two forms of carbon that are both types of solar fuel.

Uribe-Romo plans to continue the research with the hopes of expanding the range of visible light accepted by the MOFs and increasing the amount of reduced carbon produced by the reaction. He also foresees a larger impact of this technology in the future.

“The idea would be to set up stations that capture large amounts of CO2, like next to a power plant,” Uribe-Romo said in the press release. “The gas would be sucked into the station, go through the process and recycle the greenhouse gases while producing energy that would be put back into the power plant. That would take new technology and infrastructure to happen. But it may be possible.”

More to Explore
Fernando Uribe-Romo on Synthetic Photosynthesis (video)
Triggering Artificial Photosynthesis To Clean Air


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