Generating Power Like Plants

College of Arts & Sciences

When plants absorb sunlight, they convert carbon dioxide into energy-rich organic compounds. What if humans could do the same thing? What if we could pull CO2 out of the air and use it to build organic molecules? This revolutionary idea is still just that — an idea. But organic chemists at UNC are laying the groundwork for turning it into reality.
A graduate student sets up a light-driven reaction with an organic dye. (photo by Mary Lide Parker)A freshwater aquarium looks a bit like an underwater garden — bright, green grasses grow next to burgundy leaves resembling arugula. Small, silver fish dart between the foliage, as streams of bubbles flow up through the water column.
Dave Nicewicz stares at this array of life contained within the rectangular glass tank on his desk.
“Look at the little oxygen bubble at the edge of the leaf — that’s a good one” he says, pointing to the plant with a reddish hue. A small heat lamp mimics the sun, radiating light into the tank, while six different species of plants release oxygen.
“I love this thing because you can actually see photosynthesis happening — you can’t see that outside.”
David Nicewicz points to the oxygen bubbles in his freshwater aquarium. (photo by Mary Lide Parker)As a research scientist, Nicewicz finds inspiration in photosynthesis. And while he loves plants (both his office and home are full of them) he is not a biologist — he’s an organic chemist.
“I’m not equating what we do to photosynthesis, but we’re inspired by that process,” he says.
Nicewicz’s ultimate goal is to use the most abundant source of energy on the planet — sunlight — to power chemical reactions. “To harvest sunlight in a way that either directly or indirectly can be used in chemical reactions by translating photons into electrons,” he says. “That’s the …

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