Sustainable energy converters modelled on natural photosynthesis

Ulm University

The Universities of Ulm and Jena are now experiencing a further boost for their chemical research programmes. The German Research Foundation (DFG) announced on 18 May that it will fund the joint Collaborative Research Centre/Transregio (SFB/TRR) 234 "CataLight" for the next four years.

The partners, including the University of Vienna, the Max Planck Institute of Polymer Research in Mainz and the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technologies e.V. in Jena, applied for roughly ten million euros in funding. The transregional research network intends to use the funding to investigate the basic functionality of innovative photocatalytically active materials as well as initial areas of application. The researchers from the fields of chemistry, materials science and physics are interested in using light to produce high-energy chemicals and designing new materials for sustainable energy conversion.

"This funding strongly affirms Ulm as a research site. Research in the area of energy conversion and storage is being driven forward at Ulm University and in the surrounding Science City. Ulm University and its partners are gaining additional international luminescence from CataLight, with its focus on 'artificial photosynthesis', as well as from the well established battery research", says Ulm University President Prof Dr-Ing Michael Weber. "The approval of this additional Collaborative Research Centre strengthens the 'light' profile at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena", stated an enthusiastic President Prof Dr Walter Rosenthal. "It is the result of long-running successful cooperation among the partners. And I am absolutely thrilled that so many young scientists are being included in the research".

Chemical energy conversion modelled on nature

Solar energy regulates numerous chemical processes that are also extremely relevant for energy generation and technologies. Working with the model of natural photosynthesis, scientists in the new SFB/TRR 234 "CataLight" (Light-driven Molecular Catalysts in Hierarchically Structured Materials - Synthesis and Mechanistic Studies) are hoping to develop molecular catalyst systems for light-driven production of hydrogen and oxygen from water. Their research focuses on the constructive interaction between molecular photocatalysts and their polymer-based environment, which enable reactivity to be well regulated, but are relatively instable compared to, for instance, photocatalytically active metal oxides.

"With the new research network, we are setting out to strike a totally new path for stabilising such molecular photocatalysts and making repair processes accessible", says the SFB/TRR spokesperson Prof Dr Sven Rau from Ulm University. "We see how nature does it and then we integrate the molecular components in soft matter in order to establish new concepts for photocatalytic water splitting", adds his colleague and deputy Prof Dr Benjamin Dietzek from the University of Jena. In natural photocatalysis, molecular systems are imbedded in a soft phospholipid layer. "In this way, nature stabilises the system and enables the exchange of individual components", Dietzek explains. Nature has also developed other functions, eg an antenna effect, which the research network also hopes to integrate using appropriate synthetic approaches.

Distant goal: artificial chloroplasts

"The aim of the new SFB/TRR 234 is to utilise the energy from sunlight to split water with molecular machines", says Rau. "We hope that CataLight will supply a mechanistic understanding of the interaction of light-driven molecular catalysts and structured soft materials". But first, a great deal of basic research into the chemical processes is necessary. The aim for the end of the first funding phase is to have attained new insights into this process and to have evaluated various materials. It will, however, require many years of intense research until the distant goal of artificial chloroplasts with an exactly defined design can be achieved.

Joint press release with the University of Jena, Text: Axel Burchardt

Prof Sven Rau, spokesperson for SFV/TRR 234 “CataLight”
Prof Sven Rau, spokesperson for SFV/TRR 234 “CataLight”
Light-driven catalysis experiments are conducted at Ulm University in this device.
Light-driven catalysis experiments are conducted at Ulm University in this device.