Artificial foam converts solar energy to sugars

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An artificial foam that is claimed to capture and convert the sun’s energy more effectively than living organisms has won the grand prize at the 2010 Earth Awards.

Dr David Wendell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Cincinnati, received the $50,000 (£31,483) award for developing the foam with Dr Carlo Montemagno, dean of the university’s college of engineering and applied science.

The photosynthetic foam uses plant, bacterial, frog and fungal enzymes trapped within a foam housing to produce sugars from sunlight and CO2.

Foam was chosen because it can effectively concentrate the reactants but allow very good light and air penetration. The design was based on the foam nests of a semi-tropical frog called the Tungara frog, which creates very long-lived foams for its developing tadpoles.

Wendell said: ’Artificial photosynthetic foam effectively does what the sun does — but better. The foam is still taking CO2 from the air, but because the foam is not an organism we are doing this with greater efficiency. Plants typically convert solar energy into sugars at a rate of 1-5 per cent but the foam does this at a minimum rate of 16 per cent — and even more in some circumstances.’

A low-cost solar cell that imitates photosynthesis opens up new applications for photovoltaics. Click here to read more.