Could This Toy Help Save Our Planet?

UCF Professor Fernando Uribe-Romo is merging his love for chemistry and nature to create a new form of energy — artificial photosynthesis — that actually cleans air.

The conversation is supposed to be about deep topics like renewable energy, global warming and scientific methods. But less than a minute in, Fernando Uribe-Romo has a confession: “I feel like a kid in a toy room.” Uribe-Romo is 34, an assistant professor of chemistry at UCF, and the toy room he refers to is his lab on campus. As he tells his students, “There is no telling what you can do here.”

Exhibit A: Just look what Uribe-Romo has done.

Using the same ingenuity that he once used when playing with Tinkertoys, Uribe-Romo recently developed a material and a method to produce artificial photosynthesis. In other words, he discovered a way to draw CO2 from the environment and turn it into a fuel using energy provided by the sun. To back it down one more notch, it is adapting and improving what plants were created to do. The development has caused such a stir that Uribe-Romo was asked to present it at a TEDx Talk in October.

The man who conducted research at five universities in three countries before coming to UCF in 2013 says, “I didn’t set out to change the world.” But the former Boy Scout has always wanted to leave the world better than he found it.

(Photo by Steven Diaz)

Robert Stephens: Artificial photosynthesis. It sounds like a collision of nature and imitation.

Fernando Uribe-Romo: Actually, chemistry can hold the answer to many of our sustainability problems. But we have to start by studying nature first. Nature gives us the best ideas. Then we use chemistry to make adjustments and perfect what nature is doing.

RS: So how are you improving the natural process of photosynthesis?

FUR: We create materials in the lab by organizing their atoms into specific Tinkertoy formations, so the material can absorb CO2 and store it more efficiently than a plant can do. The CO2 can then be converted into energy using sunlight. Being able to organize atoms and see these types of results is a dream for chemists like me.

RS: What are these materials you’re creating in the lab? Are they like plants?

FUR: No. They’re compounds called Metal–Organic Frameworks, or MOFs. They’re like nano-sponges, with a honeycomb surface that attracts CO2 from the atmosphere. Imagine an adsorbent surface area the size of six tennis courts, all condensed into the size of a spoonful. That’s how efficient these MOFs are.

RS: What’s the name of the MOF you’re using?

FUR: They’re constantly being created, so the only way to name them is after the school where the MOF is first made. The one we’re using started at a university in France, but we’ve done so much adjusting to its properties that we’ll name future materials after UCF later this year.

RS: If you could see 50 years ahead, how would you see people using your MOF in homes?

FUR: There’s no telling. Maybe the MOF would be integrated in the paint. You paint the exterior and let the house do photosynthesis and collect usable energy.

RS: Realistically, what would be the cost of implementing artificial photosynthesis into the mainstream, compared with solar or wind or nuclear power?

FUR: It shouldn’t be an either-or solution. To solve our environmental issues, we need a bigger portfolio of energy solutions. It’s all of us working together, including the oil and power companies. No one can just tell the oil and power companies to turn everything off. We’re actually working on another project with the help of a grant from the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative — an agency funded by BP. There could be a day when power companies utilize artificial photosynthesis to reuse CO2 emissions from the burning of fuel. They’d create energy in a carbon neutral process.

RS: Helping nature do its work.

FUR: Yes. The plant life on earth can only do so much to restore the CO2 levels to non-threatening levels. We need to work with nature more than anything else.

RS: How did a chemist become so interested in nature?

FUR: Chemistry starts with nature. That’s how my personal story goes, growing up in Ensenada, Mexico, on the Baja Peninsula. I was a Boy Scout, loved being in the forest and mountains and beaches. When I was doing research in upstate New York, I’d walk a mile and a half through the forest to get to my lab. My thirst for enjoying the beauty of nature makes me want to understand it more — and to help it however we can.

RS: Is that your ultimate motivation?

FUR: Honestly, I’m just a kid who likes building new toys. It’s like, “Look what I can do!” And now look what the toy can do: It can make our world better.