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New photocatalytic system converts carbon dioxide to valuable fuel more efficiently than natural photosynthesis

A joint research team from City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and collaborators have developed a stable artificial photocatalytic system that is more efficient than natural photosynthesis. The new system mimics a natural chloroplast to convert carbon dioxide in water into methane, very efficiently using light.

A paper on this team’s latest work was published in Nature Catalysis.


A hierarchical self-assembly photocatalytic system (left) mimics the natural photosynthesis apparatus of a purple bacteria, called Rhodobacter sphaeroides (right), achieving 15% solar-to-fuel efficiency when converting carbon dioxide into methane. Photo credit: (left) Professor Ye Ruquan’s research group / City University of Hong Kong and (right) Biophysical Journal, 99:67-75, 2010.

Photosynthesis is the process by which chloroplasts in plants and some organisms use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to create food or energy. In past decades, many scientists have tried to develop artificial photosynthesis processes to turn carbon dioxide into carbon-neutral fuel.

However, it is difficult to convert carbon dioxide in water because many photosensitizers or catalysts degrade in water. Although artificial photocatalytic cycles have been shown to operate with higher intrinsic efficiency, the low selectivity and stability in water for carbon dioxide reduction have hampered their practical applications.

—Professor Ye Ruquan, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at CityU, co-corresponding author

In this latest study, the joint-research team from CityU, The University of Hong Kong (HKU), Jiangsu University and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences overcame these difficulties by using a supramolecular assembly approach to create an artificial photosynthetic system.

It mimics the structure of a purple bacteria’s light-harvesting chromatophores (i.e. cells that contain pigment), which are very efficient at transferring energy from the sun.


Formation of a hydrogen-bond enhanced nanomicelle and its hydrogen production and carbon dioxide reduction under solar energy. Photo credit: Professor Ye Ruquan’s research group / City University of Hong Kong

The core of the new artificial photosynthetic system is a highly stable artificial nanomicelle—a kind of polymer that can self-assemble in water, with both a water-loving (hydrophilic) and a water-fearing (hydrophobic) end.

The nanomicelle’s hydrophilic head functions as a photosensitizer to absorb sunlight, and its hydrophobic tail acts as an inducer for self-assembly. When it is placed in water, the nanomicelles self-assemble due to intermolecular hydrogen bonding between the water molecules and the tails. Adding a cobalt catalyst results in photocatalytic hydrogen production and carbon dioxide reduction, resulting in the production of hydrogen and methane.

Using advanced imaging techniques and ultrafast spectroscopy, the team unveiled the atomic features of the innovative photosensitizer. They discovered that the special structure of the nanomicelle’s hydrophilic head, along with the hydrogen bonding between water molecules and the nanomicelle’s tail, make it a stable, water-compatible artificial photosensitizer, solving the conventional instability and water-incompatibility problem of artificial photosynthesis. The electrostatic interaction between the photosensitizer and the cobalt catalyst, and the strong light-harvesting antenna effect of the nanomicelle improved the photocatalytic process.

In the experiment, the team found that the methane production rate was more than 13,000 μmol h−1 g−1, with a quantum yield of 5.6% over 24 hours. It also achieved a highly efficient solar-to-fuel efficiency rate of 15%, surpassing natural photosynthesis.

Most importantly, the new artificial photocatalytic system is economically viable and sustainable, as it doesn’t rely on expensive precious metals.

The hierarchical self-assembly of the system offers a promising bottom-up strategy to create a precisely controlled, high-performance artificial photocatalytic system based on cheap, Earth-abundant elements, like zinc and cobalt porphyrin complexes.

—Professor Ye

The study was supported by various funding sources, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Guangdong Basic and Applied Basic Research Fund, the Shenzhen Science and Technology Program, and the Hong Kong Research Grant Council.


  • Yu, J., Huang, L., Tang, Q. et al. (2023) “Artificial spherical chromatophore nanomicelles for selective CO2 reduction in water.” Nat Catal 6, 464–475 doi: 10.1038/s41929-023-00962-z



Obviously transformative if it works economically at scale.


Indeed, watch this space.


Nice also that they are producing methane which is much easier to handle than H2, and could, for instance, go straight into the gas main, up to 100% without any modifications to the pipes or equipment.


Even better for “Outer Space”.
This could be used to create rocket fuel on Mars.


I'm on Patreon and one of my sites which I support is 'Engineering with Rosie'.

She asked for ideas for articles, and I got enthusiastic, I am afraid! So came up with several suggestions, which could benefit in my view from her expert engineering eye.

To qualify as something I was hoping she can find time to look into, stuff had to be able to be developed in a relatively near term, rely on mostly established engineering and conform to my cheap, cheap principles!

This one seems to qualify, so I could not resist mentioning this one too to Rosie, in spite of her already having loads on her plate!

Exciting times, with transformative tech coming through from several directions.

And today there is another one!

Direct ethanol fuel cells:

I would not put this as a 'top pick' as it seems at least at the moment to rely on precious metals, and substituting them is non-trivial.

But ethanol is very attractive as it is so easy to transport and store.

I am not too sure what the metric they give of 0.8 watts/sq cm means, as that would be per plate, and numerous plates are stacked in a fuel cell.

Marvelous for stuff like maritime use though, for which it might even be acceptable to have comparatively high precious use.


DEFC are interesting since they use a non-toxic, commonly available fuel.
What might be interesting would be use as a range extender that could also enhance the low temp performance of batteries.
A 5 kW DEFC coupled with a 40 kWH Solid State battery could in a proper aerodynamic vehicle give potentially a 1000 kM range vehicle.
The UCF catalyst is not all Palladium, it also has Cobalt and carbon.


Hi Gryf:

Yeah, I caught that it was not solid palladium!

But in the absence of knowing how much it does use per Kw, I tend to be pessimistic in conformity with my generally cheapskate principles :-0

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