- Category: Technology
04 Feb 2011
- Published on Friday, 04 February 2011 05:17
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By Nuel Navarrete
A team of researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have created a new photoconversion system that turns visible light into hydrogen fuel through a process similar to photosynthesis in plants.
Photosynthesis allows plants to convert solar energy into chemical energy for sustenance. This natural process has long been a model for researchers seeking to develop new materials that can harness solar energy for electricity and fuel production.
Researchers at the lab have demonstrated and confirmed that light harvesting complex II (LHC-II) proteins from spinach are capable of organizing themselves with polymers to form a synthetic membrane structure that can produce hydrogen. It is also a step towards self-repair mechanisms for future photoconversion systems.
Hugh O'Neill, a research team member and scientist at the lab's Center for Structural Molecular Biology, says creating a synthetic photoconversion system capable of repairing itself is very difficult but crucial as the system loses its effectiveness as it degrades.
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In their experiments, the protein strain was separated from other cellular components in the spinach and extracted for the experiment. The scientists then used an analysis method called small angle neutron scattering to confirm the protein strain’s restructuring capacity.
Results of the analysis show that the LHC-II interacts with polymer molecules when introduced into a liquid environment that contains polymers. The protein worked with the polymers to form lamellar sheets that are similar to those found in natural photosynthetic membranes.
"This is the first example of a protein altering the phase behavior of a synthetic polymer that we have found in the literature. This finding could be exploited for the introduction of self-repair mechanisms in future solar conversion systems," said Mr. O'Neill.
The protein strain’s ability to force the organization of structural polymers into a uniform, layered state could be the key to developing biohybrid photoconversion systems.
Such systems would include high surface area, light-absorbent panes that use proteins combined with a catalyst to turn sunlight into fuel-grade hydrogen.
Primarily, the LHC-II proteins would serve as solar collectors by absorbing sunlight and turning these over to the photosynthetic reaction centers for maximum output. But the analysis also discovered the protein strain can perform electron transfer reactions, a process it was now known to carry out in the spinach.
This research builds on previous studies by the laboratory on the energy-conversion properties of platinized photosystem I complexes. The scientists believe the protein can be produced synthetically in the future and optimized to react to light.