Solar Energy Research Conference at Rensselaer draws solar experts from around the world

November 10, 2011

Experts from around the globe came together at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Nov. 4-5 at the Baruch '60 Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research to discuss the development of technologies that run on the cleanest and safest energy production process on Earth: photosynthesis. The conference, titled "At the Interface of Natural and Artificial Photosynthesis," was co-chaired by K.V. Lakshmi, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology and the scientific lead at the Baruch '60 Center at Rensselaer, and John H. Golbeck, professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and chemistry at Pennsylvania State University.

"The overwhelming need for carbon-neutral energy and the enormous potential of solar energy use is the driving force behind the recent conference at the Baruch '60 Center," Lakshmi said. "At the Center, we recognize that an understanding of the fundamental chemistry of biological solar energy conversion in nature is required to successfully achieve the goal of creating highly efficient and cost-effective bio-inspired solutions for solar fuels production. At the conference, we witnessed amazing research breakthroughs and important debates in the field of light-driven chemical catalysis. We are indeed pleased to have created an interdisciplinary forum [at the conference] that is the underlying basis of research on natural and artificial photosynthesis."

The conference brought together an interdisciplinary group of scientists from academia, government, and industry to discuss the next generation of solar technology based on the energy converting power of plants. The research is at the interface of chemistry, biology, physics, and materials. The work within the field seeks to map out the step-by-step process that nature's perfect green machines go through to convert solar rays into life-sustaining energy.

The process of photosynthesis is among the most efficient processes in the world. Capturing and replicating its power in new solar technology could result in a revolution in solar technology. It was the vast potential of solar energy research that inspired Thomas R. Baruch, a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees and an alumnus of the Class of 1960, to help establish the Baruch Center at Rensselaer in 2008.

"My wife, Johanna, and I share the belief that meeting the global demand for energy will be a daunting task achievable via a technology revolution based on using plentiful solar energy with far-reaching efficiency," Baruch said. "Real breakthroughs will come from talented researchers applying multidisciplinary approaches and innovative research tools. We are very lucky to witness these new ideas here at the Baruch '60 Center and at Rensselaer today, where we are joined by exceptional talent in the field of natural and artificial photosynthesis."

"The Baruch '60 Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research is critical to the future success of the School of Science at Rensselaer. It is both a research and educational resource, producing breakthrough discoveries at the interface of fundamental and applied science, and educating the next generation of energy pioneers," according to Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer.

The two-day conference included invited lectures that covered photosynthetic processes from the solar-driven splitting of water molecules to the production of hydrogen and CO2 reduction as well as the development of bio-inspired technologies to emulate these processes in man-made devices.

"We felt that the time was right to hold a conference that highlighted research at the interface between natural photosynthesis and what is commonly referred to as artificial photosynthesis," said Golbeck. "Nature has had 3.5 billion years to craft efficient conversion of light to chemical bond energy, and the lessons that have been learned provide a roadmap to the synthesis of artificial photosynthetic systems. Conversely, the problems encountered and the solutions found in small molecule photosynthetic and electron transfer systems provide deep understanding of the principles that govern the more complicated natural systems. In the end, it may well be that it is the friction generated at the interface that will lead the field forward to efficient and inexpensive solar energy."

"One of the greatest problems facing humanity is to create a sustainable and carbon-neutral energy economy. Solar energy has the potential to provide a solution to this problem, but we need to develop more efficient, robust, and inexpensive methods to harvest solar energy," said Gary Brudvig, the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry at Yale and a presenter at the conference. "This conference brings together leading researchers who study both natural and artificial photosynthetic systems. The exchange of ideas and information between these two groups will enhance progress in the field, and the large number of students at the meeting will pave the way for future breakthroughs." More information on the conference and the center can be found at http://baruch60center.org/group/index.php.
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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