University of Cincinnati Research Assistant Professor David Wendell, student Jacob Todd and College of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Carlo Montemagno have co-authored the paper, based on research in Montemagno’s lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. They have devised a foam that captures energy and removes excess carbon dioxide from the air.

The results  “Artificial Photosynthesis in Ranaspumin-2 Based Foam” have just been published online in the March 5, 2010 issue of the journal Nano Letters. It will be a cover story for the print edition later this fall.

In photosynthesis plants take in solar energy, water and carbon dioxide and then convert the CO2 and water into oxygen and sugars. The oxygen is released to the air and the sugars are dispersed throughout the plant.  But the allocation of light energy into products people use is not as efficient or productive as optimal.

Frog Foam Vesicle Images for Synthetic Photosynthesis. Click image for more info.

The work focuses on making a new artificial photosynthetic material which uses plant, bacterial, frog and fungal enzymes, trapped within a foam housing, to produce sugars from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.  The frog foam was chosen because it can effectively concentrate the reactants but allow very good light and air penetration. The design was based on the foam nests of a semi-tropical frog called the Tungara frog, which creates very long-lived foams for its developing tadpoles.

Now how is that for innovation?

Professor David Wendell says, “The advantage for our system compared to plants and algae is that all of the captured solar energy is converted to sugars, whereas these organisms must divert a great deal of energy to other functions to maintain life and reproduce. Our foam also uses no soil, so food production would not be interrupted, and it can be used in highly enriched carbon dioxide environments, like the exhaust from coal-burning power plants, unlike many natural photosynthetic systems.”

Lets look at that “that all of the captured solar energy is converted to sugars” segment of the quote.  If not simply a conversational statement, those words are incredibly significant.  It might mean an efficiency improvement of perhaps 18 fold over natural photosynthesis at 6% or so.

Professor Wendell adds, “In natural plant systems, too much carbon dioxide shuts down photosynthesis, but ours does not have this limitation due to the bacterial-based photo-capture strategy.”

Professor Wendell explains, “You can convert the sugars into many different things, including ethanol and other biofuels, and it removes carbon dioxide from the air, but maintains current arable land for food production.”

Dean Carlo Montemagno points out, “This new technology establishes an economical way of harnessing the physiology of living systems by creating a new generation of functional materials that intrinsically incorporates life processes into its structure. Specifically in this work it presents a new pathway of harvesting solar energy to produce either oil or food with efficiencies that exceed other biosolar production methodologies. More broadly it establishes a mechanism for incorporating the functionality found in living systems into systems that we engineer and build.”

I can hear it now out there somewhere, “Why bother with algae or biomass?”  It might be so someday, but the major matters of scale and commercialization are mountains between the research and the market.  But you must say – this is a major breakthrough – that deserves a journal cover as a minimum.  If replicated, a likely prospect, and even more innovation, a completely new industry could form.

The team’s next step will be to try to make the technology feasible for large-scale applications like carbon capture at coal-burning power plants.

Wendell says, “This involves developing a strategy to extract both the lipid shell of the algae (used for biodiesel) and the cytoplasmic contents (the guts), and reusing these proteins in the foam. We are also looking into other short carbon molecules we can make by altering the enzyme cocktail in the foam.”

Montemagno adds, “It is a significant step in delivering the promise of nanotechnology.”

This writer is a little skeptical – matters of running a synthetic photosynthesis farm might be a stunning investment and have operating costs that can’t be imagined.

Yet 100% solar efficiency in getting from simply water and CO2 to plant sugars that it seems are free of cellulose and other impeding materials, well – that’s intensive, motivating and exciting bait, indeed.

After a little thought, this technology is about “disruptive” as it gets.


11 Comments so far

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