Splitting hydrogen and oxygen from water using conventional electrolysis techniques requires considerable amounts of electrical energy. But green plants produce oxygen from water efficiently using a catalytic technique powered by sunlight a process that is part of photosynthesis and so effective that it is the Earth's major source of oxygen.
If mimicked by artificial systems, this photocatalytic process could provide abundant new supplies of oxygen and, possibly hydrogen, as a by-product of producing electricity. However, despite its importance to the survival of the planet, scientists don't fully understand the complex process plants use to harness the sun's energy.
A paper to be published April 2 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences moves scientists closer to that understanding by showing the importance of a hydrogen bonding water network in that portion of the photosynthetic machinery known as photosystem II. Using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) on photosystem II extracted from ordinary spinach, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology tested the idea that a network of hydrogen-bonded water molecules plays a catalytic role in the process that produces oxygen.
"By substituting ammonia, an analog of the water molecule that has a similar structure, we were able to show that the network of hydrogen-bonded water molecules is important to the catalytic process," said Bridgette Barry, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Biosciences. "Substituting ammonia for water inhibited the activity of the photosystem and disrupted the network. The network could be reestablished by addition of a simple sugar, trehalose."
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and published in the Early Online edition of the journal.
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Georgia Institute of Technology Research News