A promising artificial photosynthesis inspired by… a frog

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American engineers want to mimic plants and even do better than them by performing a very effective artificial photosynthesis, able to use solar energy to produce biofuels or capture carbon. Their secret? A curious foam inspired by a frog, in which photosynthesis is achieved by freeing itself from certain constraints of plants.

The unexpected combination of a frog and plants has created a foam capable of artificial photosynthesis. © University of Cincinnati

Life did not wait for humans and their photovoltaic panels to exploit solar energy. The organisms have developed a chain of biochemical reactions to transform the Sun’s energy and CO 2 into chemical energy in the form of sugars. This photosynthesis is today used by humans to produce food, raw materials and energy. Thanks to a frog, engineers from the University of Cincinnati have come up with a way to exploit this photosynthesis, but without plants. This means is a foam capable of artificial photosynthesis.

” The advantage of our system compared to plants and algae is that all of the captured solar energy is converted into sugars, while these organisms must use a lot of the energy for their other functions that keep them alive and their make it possible to reproduce , David Wendell explains. In addition, our scum does not need soil, so it does not compete with food production, and it can be used in a very carbon-rich environment , such as coal-fired power plant discharges, unlike many natural photosynthetic systems . “

To achieve this biotechnological tour de force, David Wendell, Jacob Todd and Dean Carlo Montemagno were inspired by the scum nest produced by a semi-tropical frog. They were able to concentrate enzymes from plants, bacteria and fungi in a structure, scum, very permeable to light and air.

Ignoring the vital needs of plants and their inhibition by high concentrations of CO 2, the artificial photosynthesis of this foam shows a yield of around 96%.

Sectional view of the foam. The green lines are the walls of the bubbles and the green dots are the edges of Plateau, these micro-channels which concentrate the enzymes and the products of the artificial photosynthesis. © American Chemical Society 2010

Protective bubbles converted into an energy micro center

The structure of this scum, a combination of transparent and air-filled bubbles, provides enzyme associations and lipid vesicles concentrated in microscopic channels with broad access to light and carbon dioxide. These micro-channels called  Plateau edges are formed by encountering along a common line of three bubble faces.

The Tungara frog ( Engystomops pustulosus ) not only inspired the University of Cincinnati engineers, as they explain in the review Nano Letters, it also provided the surfactant protein needed to create the scum . This protein, Ranaspumin-2, has indeed foaming surfactant properties that promote the formation and association of bubbles into a foam. Originally, this froth is produced during mating to protect eggs from dehydration, harmful sunlight, temperature changes and pathogens.

The next stage of technological development is to move to an industrial scale that would, for example, capture carbon from coal plants. This involves developing a technique to extract lipids for biodiesel production on the one hand , and the elements necessary for the regeneration of scum on the other.

According to Dean Carlo Montemagno, the technology developed with this scum opens a door to the creation of new materials integrating life processes, for the production of biofuel but also for other purposes.

Dr. Monika Mathur

Ph.D Yale University

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