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Not Sugary Sweet, But New Artificial Photosynthesis May Change the Game Altogether

By Ryan Wallace ryan@sciencetimes.com | Apr 17, 2015 12:45 PM EDT

Now, it's not the first endeavor into artificial photosynthesis, but it may be the most successful on account of its hybrid technology. And by creating a system of semiconducting nanowires, paired with  bacteria, researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy and University of California, Berkeley believe that they may change the biotechnology game by converting carbon dioxide into something else, instead of a sugary sweet treat.

In the natural system, plants are known as the only organisms capable of photosynthesis-converting carbon dioxide, water and sunlight into pure chemical energy in the products of glucose and oxygen gas. Not only is the process fascinating and complex, but even though animals cannot perform this function, photosynthesis is the main driving force of all life on this Earth. By not only providing animals with breathable oxygen but food as well, photosynthesis is a biological process that has intrigued researchers since the discovery of the active organelle in plants-the chloroplast. But it also is something that has eluded biotechnologists seeking to replicate its function.

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Many have tried, yet few have come this far. And now the researchers of this new study published in the journal Nano Letters are saying that's because they took a different approach.

"We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis" coauthor of the study with the DOE, Peidong Yang says. "Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting them from deep below the ground."

While the process may be complex, the outcome is simple. Rather than producing sugary-sweet glucose as their products like many plants, the nanowire-bacteria hybrids instead fixate carbon dioxide and water into acetate-an essential building block in the processes of biosynthesis used today. And it's a product that researchers believe may give them more flexibility in production, as opposed to sugars. Utilizing this acetate product researchers will be able to create pharmaceutical drugs, biodegradable polymers and plastics, with the potential for even creating high-quality, renewable fuels.

"In natural photosynthesis, leaves harvest solar energy and carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of molecular products that form biomass" coauthor, Chris Chang says. "In our system, nanowires harvest solar energy and deliver electrons to bacteria, where carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of a variety of targeted, value-added chemical products."

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