The world took one significant step closer to inventing a real-life cybernetic organism as US scientists, inspired by the Terminator movie, combined organic matter with semiconductors in a process that replicates plants’ transformation of light into fuel.
The breakthrough is quite significant, scientists at universities
in Michigan and Pittsburgh believe. Their blend of a chemical
used in solar panels and a plant protein that acts during
photosynthesis “recreate the process that allows plants to turn
sunlight into fuel,” the Michigan press-release cites the team as saying.
“Human endeavors to transform the energy of sunlight into biofuels using either artificial materials or whole organisms have low efficiency," Nicholas Kotov, Florence B. Cejka Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan and leader of the study explained.
But what he and his peers have accomplished with their bionic approach is a true step forward, as it combines two of the most important features of its components – the strength of inorganic materials – which convert light into electronic energy – with biological molecules, whose chemical attributes bring those mechanical processes to life.
The components are, respectably, cadmium telluride and cytochrome C. The semiconductor drinks in the sunlight and turns it into an electron, while the cytochrome C transports that electron in a process of photosynthesis.
The nanoparticles and molecules function together by exchanging electrons. And since the closer the two are, the better, the research team decided to combine the two into a single organism with the ability to act on its own and create particles that turn themselves into super-particles with own functions.
"We merged biological and inorganic in a way that leverages the attributes of both to get something better than either alone," said U-M's Sharon Glotzer, the Stuart W. Churchill Professor of Chemical Engineering, who led the simulations.
During an experiment, the scientists turned the pollutant nitrate into nitrite and oxygen, proving that bionic particles could harness sunlight to drive chemical reactions.
They believe that the particle, which took a beating from handling the energy, may be able to renew itself – like the plants do.
For now, the scientists are looking to achieve the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into natural gas, which would result in a larger part of the modern energy infrastructure working with no net carbon emissions.
However, their discovery has a potential of truly sci-fi proportions and may eventually bring some of humanity’s dream and nightmares to life.
"These design principles can be used to guide future designs for other bionic systems, starting from the primary building blocks of biological organisms and inorganic machines," Kotov said. "It is very possible that Terminator of the future would need to be constructed starting from such building blocks."