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Turning Sunlight Into Hydrogen Directly By Using Spinach-Derived Proteins

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The Light Harvesting Complex II in plants

A system that converts the energy of sunlight directly into hydrogen has been discovered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Scientists there have managed to design what they call a “biohybrid photoconversion system,” which consists in the interaction of plant proteins responsible with photosynthesis and a synthetic polymer they created.

The Light Harvesting Complex II proteins (LHC-II) in a spinach plant have been determined of being able to self-assemble with polymers in a synthetic membrane structure which can produce hydrogen from water in the presence of sunlight. The researchers used a technique called “small angle neutron scattering” at ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor.

“Making a self-repairing synthetic photoconversion system is a pretty tall order. The ability to control structure and order in these materials for self-repair is of interest because, as the system degrades, it loses its effectiveness,” ORNL researcher Hugh O’Neill, of the lab’s Center for Structural Molecular Biology, said.

The discovery is not new – ORNL researchers had previously determined the light conversion properties of platinized photosystem I complexes and based their present achievements on this data. “We’re building on the photosynthesis research to explore the development of self-assembly in biohybrid systems. The neutron studies give us direct evidence that this is occurring,” O’Neill said.

Eventually, hydrogen will get transformed into electricity through fuel cells and used to power electric motors. This is yet another points where energy is lost through inefficiency, but I tend to think it’s better to directly generate the gas than generate electricity through solar cells, then turn it into hydrogen and then into electricity again. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

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