Scientists create bionic particles inspired by “Terminator”

The particles -- part synthetic, part biological -- are not cyborg assassins, but aimed at reducing carbon dioxide

Topics: terminator, bionic particle, Carbon Dioxide, Water, Energy, natural gas, , ,

Scientists create bionic particles inspired by "Terminator"

Researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Pittsburgh have created the first bionic particles out of proteins and semiconductors. Despite the fact that the scientists were “Inspired by fictional cyborgs like ‘Terminator,’” according to a statement from the University of Michigan, these particles are not Arnold Schwarzenegger-size, and programmed to kill.

Rather their goal is to harness plants’ photosynthesis power of converting light into fuel.

According to the experiment’s leader, Nicholas Kotov, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan, previous attempts to convert sunlight into biofuel using synthetic methods or organisms have been inefficient.

The researchers hoped that a bionic particle could hold the solution: part inorganic material, part biological organism.

According to the University of Michigan, the bionic particles “blend the strengths of inorganic materials, which can readily convert light energy to electron energy, with biological molecules whose chemical functions have been highly developed through evolution.”

These particular bionic particles combined materials used in solar panels, the semiconductor cadmium telluride, and a protein found in plants, cytochrome C, which is used to transport electrons during photosynthesis. “With this combination, the semiconductor can turn a ray from the sun into an electron, and the cytochrome C can pull that electron away for use in chemical reactions that could clean up pollution or produce fuel, for instance,” the statement explains.

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In the researchers’ experiment, the bionic particle was able to convert nitrate, a common water pollutant associated with fertilizer runoff, into nitrite and oxygen (with the help of other enzymes).

The particles, like those that convert light into energy in plants, were quite rundown after the experiment. The next goal is to make them self-repairing.

Beyond that, one of the researchers’ objectives is for the particle to turn carbon dioxide and water into natural gas. Depending on how water- and energy-intensive the process is, the particle could be a way to recapture carbon dioxide for further energy use. The University of Michigan said the particle would “allow much of the current energy infrastructure to continue working with no net carbon emissions.”

Current methods of acquiring natural gas, such as fracking, can be environmentally unsound.

“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 explained. “It is very possible that Terminator of the future would need to be constructed starting from such building blocks.”

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

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