A test-tube photosynthesis system--described in the March 5 issue of Science--mimics a metal cluster that helps green plants harness sunlight to turn water into oxygen, says University of Delaware chemist Arnold L. Rheingold, a coauthor of the journal article, who analyzed the Yale University invention.
"We owe our lives to oxygen, and virtually all of the oxygen we breathe is produced by plants and some bacteria, through photosynthesis," says Rheingold, one of the world's 10 most frequently cited chemists. "Yet, our understanding of photosynthesis has been limited by its complexity. This relatively simple, artificial system should shed light on how life-giving oxygen is produced on Earth, which points to our origins and how the atmosphere evolved on our planet."
A UD professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Rheingold doesn't foresee any immediate practical uses for fake photosynthesis. In industrial settings, oxygen can already be mass-produced by fractionating liquid air, he notes. But, he adds, "Next-generation solar power will require more efficient water-splitting techniques," so the artificial photosynthesis system may suggest new strategies for converting sunlight into electricity. And, he says, such fundamental knowledge enhances our appreciation of the natural world.
Rheingold teamed up with UD graduate student Louise M. Liable-Sands to precisely map the molecular structure of the test-tube photosynthesis system, developed by Yale graduate student Julian Limburg, lead author of the Science article, with graduate student John S. Vrettos and Profs. Robert H. Crabtree and Gary W. Brudvig.
"I doubt there's a commercial need for the Yale oxygen-making factory,"
Rheingold says. "But, it may allow us to understand how our planet came to have
oxygen. The early environment on Earth was quite inhospitable. The evolution of
photosynthetic plants created oxygen and completely changed the atmosphere on
our planet. That's an amazing proc
Contact: Ginger Pinholster
University of Delaware