The development of a system that can capture carbon dioxide emissions before they reach the atmosphere and convert them into chemicals could be a game-changer in the field of artificial photosynthesis.

The innovative system uses solar energy to convert the captures carbon dioxide into useful products, such as biodegradable plastics, pharmaceutical drugs, and liquid fuels, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reported. The system consists of semiconducting nanowires and bacteria that mimic natural photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide and water into acetate, which is the most common building block for biosynthesis.

"We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis," said Peidong Yang, a chemist with Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and one of the leaders of this study. "Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting them from deep below the ground."

Atmospheric carbon dioxide has reached the highest levels seen in about three million years, primarily as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. Scientists have been looking for ways to sequester this carbon before it reaches the atmosphere to help control this important environmental issue. This new breakthrough could help solve the problem by converting the captured carbon into useful materials.

"In natural photosynthesis, leaves harvest solar energy and carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of molecular products that form biomass," said Chris Chang, an expert in catalysts for carbon-neutral energy conversions. "In our system, nanowires harvest solar energy and deliver electrons to bacteria, where carbon dioxide is reduced and combined with water for the synthesis of a variety of targeted, value-added chemical products."

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Nano Letters.