Researchers are combining semiconducting nanowires and bacteria and can now produce liquid fuel. The Kavli Foundation has sponsored a roundtable discussion with three leading scientists that is a very useful read that’s available for everyone to read through.

Organic plant based photosynthesis uses solar power to drive the ability of plants to transform sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars for making the plants chemical components. But synthetic photosynthesis (artificial photosynthesis) seeks to produce liquid fuels that can be stored for months or years and distributed through existing energy infrastructure. Both are more simply said to be solar energy powered chemical recombination reactions.

Solar energy powered chemical recombination reactions can make gasoline and natural gas using only sunlight carbon dioxide and water. Imagine using those fuels to heat our homes or run our cars without adding any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  These systems would all be recycling atmospheric CO2.

One roundtable participant is Peidong Yang, a professor of chemistry at University of California, Berkeley who leads a team combining nanoscience and biology that has taken a big step toward the goal. Yang, a co-director of the school’s Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute, leads the team that has created an artificial leaf that produces methane, the primary component of natural gas, using a combination of semiconducting nanowires and bacteria.

The research paper, published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just this past August, builds on a similar hybrid system, also recently devised by Yang and his colleagues, that yielded butanol, a drop in alcohol replacement for gasoline, and a variety of biochemical building blocks.

Yang said, “We’re good at generating electrons from light efficiently, but chemical synthesis always limited our systems in the past. One purpose of this experiment was to show we could integrate bacterial catalysts with semiconductor technology. This lets us understand and optimize a truly synthetic photosynthesis system.”

The next roundtable participant is Thomas Moore a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University, where he previously headed the Center for Bioenergy & Photosynthesis. Moore said, “Burning fossil fuels is putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than natural photosynthesis can take it out. A system that pulls every carbon that we burn out of the air and converts it into fuel is truly carbon neutral.”

The third roundtable participant, Ted Sargent, the vice-dean of research for the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at University of Toronto said, “This is not about mimicking nature directly or literally. Instead, it is about learning nature’s guidelines, its rules on how to make a compellingly efficient and selective catalyst, and then using these insights to create better-engineered solutions.”

“Today, nature has us beat,” Sargent added. “But this is also exciting, because nature proves it’s possible.”

Ultimately these researchers hope to create an entirely synthetic system that is more robust and efficient than its natural counterpart. To do that, they need model systems to study nature’s best designs, especially the catalysts that convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars at room temperatures.

Meanwhile, it feels like photosynthesis is getting to be an overworked word with more meanings than can be made sensible. This team and their discussion seems a lot like a discussion on solar powered CO2 recycling back into portable fuels.

The Kavli Foundation asks some worthwhile questions and the three scientists’ answers are adroit and on point with considerable insight into the future. A read through is time well spent. Just overlook the smidgen of CO2 political correctness added in to calm the carbon hysteria.


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind