10 January 2017

Photosynthesis turned upside down by researchers over the next 3 years

A grant of almost 15 million DKK from the Novo Nordisk Foundation will allow researchers at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, the Department of Chemistry and Copenhagen Plant Science Centre at the University of Copenhagen to continue their work on “reverse photosynthesis”.

Significant Danish and international attention

A major challenge within biotechnology these days is using sunlight energy to carry out chemical processes. Such a technology will be a 'game changer" in the development of more energy-efficient processes.

It therefore attracted significant Danish and International attention when a group of researchers at Copenhagen Plant Science Centre at Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences published an article in Nature Communications in April 2016. The researchers had discovered a new light-driven enzyme mechanism where sunlight can degrade biomass by means of an oxidizing enzyme.

The research group, headed by Claus Felby from the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, had discovered that the light energy, that make plants grow via photosynthesis, can be reversed, and the energy from the light can be used to break down plant products.

The discovery of reverse photosynthesis was selected as the best Danish research result of 2016 Ingeniøren and listed on DR Videnskab’s list of 12 scientific high points of the year.

The work continues

It may prove to be a very important discovery, since the enzyme can increase the degradation process with a factor of 100. This means that some of the reactions, which today take 24 hours, can be done in just 10 minutes by means of sunlight. It will thus probably be possible to boost existing processes for production of e.g., biofuels and bio-chemicals, so that they are taking place faster and at lower temperatures - i.e. a more energy-efficient process.

The researchers hope that the process can be developed to convert e.g. biogas to methanol, because methanol can be used in existing processes in the petrochemical industry and for instance be made into chemicals and aircraft fuels. This holds a lot of potential.

The process still only works on the lab, and therefore the researchers will continue to build on the scientific discovery over the next three years. The objective is to delve deeper into the light-driven processes and to develop actual light-driven reactors as a step toward the industrial use of sunlight as direct energy source to drive a chemical process.