Bright future: artificial photosynthesis in synthetic material now possible

The process promises a reduction in greenhouse gases linked to climate change, while producing clean energy.

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A way to trigger photosynthesis in a synthetic material has been found, which could turn greenhouse gases into clean air and produce energy at the same time.

The process triggers a chemical reaction in a synthetic material called metal-organic frameworks (MOF) that breaks down carbon dioxide into harmless organic compounds.

This can be thought of as an artificial photosynthesis process similar to the way plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and sunlight into food – but this method produces solar fuel instead.

Titanium was used together with light-harvesting antenna molecules, N-alkyl-2-aminoterephthalates, designed to absorb specific colours of light when incorporated in the MOF. In this case the colour blue.

“This work is a breakthrough,” said Fernando Uribe-Romo, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Central Florida (UCF), who led the research.

“Tailoring materials that will absorb a specific colour 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.”

A blue LED photoreactor was assembled to test out the hypothesis. Measured amounts of carbon dioxide were fed slowly into the photoreactor to see if the reaction would occur. The glowing blue light came from strips of LED lights inside the chamber of the cylinder and mimic the sun’s blue wavelength.

The experiment was successful and the chemical reaction transformed the CO2 into two reduced forms of carbon, formate and formamides (two kinds of solar fuel), cleaning the air in the process.

“The goal is to continue to fine-tune the approach so we can create greater amounts of reduced carbon so it is more efficient,” Uribe-Romo explained.

It is possible that other wavelengths of visible light may also trigger the reaction with adjustments to the synthetic material.

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