Heinz Frei, a senior scientist in Biosciences’ Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging (MBIB) Division, seeks to engineer devices that emulate photosynthesis – the sunlight-driven chemical reaction that green plants and algae use to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into cellular fuel. If the necessary technology could be refined past theoretical models and lab-scale prototypes, this idea, known as artificial photosynthesis, has the potential to generate large sources of completely renewable energy using the surplus CO2 in our atmosphere.
Frei’s team has developed an artificial photosynthesis system, comprised of nanosized tubes, that appears capable of performing all the key steps of the fuel-generating reaction. Their latest paper, published in Advanced Functional Materials, demonstrates that their design allows for the rapid flow of protons from the interior space of the tube, where they are generated from splitting water molecules, to the outside, where they combine with CO2 and electrons to form the fuel. Fast proton flow is essential for efficiently harnessing sunlight energy to form a fuel.