Research Finds Protein May Aid in Solar Energy Production

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Research Finds Protein May Aid in Solar Energy Production

UC Berkeley researchers are growing synthetic light-absorbing material that could one day become a component of solar energy production.

The material is derived from a protein grown in e. coli bacteria that has been modified by the researchers to act as a scaffold for light-absorbing molecules.

Researchers attach chromophores- organic light-absorbing molecules-to the proteins, which are assembled into a tightly-coiled capsid, a protein shell found in viruses. In this form, the proteins build a framework in which chromophores are set a specific distance apart so that absorbed solar energy can flow freely between them.

"They could have a role as a transportable and temporary source of energy (like) the way we use a battery today," said Matthew Francis, an assistant professor of chemistry.

He added that the light transfer between the chromophores mimics the way plants absorb light.

In the future, researchers will continue working to create light-absorbing systems that would work together to resemble photosynthesis in plants, Francis said.

"Using proteins and other biological materials has a very bright future," Francis said. "It's useful to make these mimics of the photosynthesis apparatus (in order) to understand how these components work together."

He added that it will be years before consumer devices use protein-based light-absorbing materials for solar cells, but added that the research has various applications in material science.

Graduate student Michel Dedeo said researchers want to understand how to attach more groups of chromophores within the protein capsid. Doing so would allow the organic "batteries" to absorb different wavelengths of light.

He said although commercial applications are not yet ready, the research is already contributing greatly to the emerging field of protein engineering.

"(In) a lot of research you're working on a problem and who knows what it's going to do," Dedeo said. "There's a chance that this might be able to produce energy."

-Stephanie Baer


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