UC Berkeley professor Peidong Yang receives Global Energy Prize

Photo of Peidong Yang
Alison Yin/Courtesy
Peidong Yang received the 2020 Global Energy Prize in the Non-Conventional Energy category for the invention of the nanoparticle-based solar cell and artificial photosynthesis.

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On Sept. 7 at around 3 a.m., UC Berkeley energy and chemistry professor Peidong Yang received a phone call informing him that he won the 2020 Global Energy Prize for his research.

A prestigious prize awarded annually in Russia by the president of the Russian Federation, the Global Energy Prize recognizes research and technological developments in the field of energy from around the world. Yang received the accolade in the Global Energy Prize’s Non-Conventional Energy category for the invention of the nanoparticle-based solar cell and artificial photosynthesis.

Beyond his research on artificial photosynthesis, Yang helped launch the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, an energy hub from the U.S. Department of Energy, with researchers from the California Institute of Technology.

“I was happy,” Yang said. “This is a good recognition for my team’s almost more than 15 years’ work on artificial photosynthesis.”

Yang and his team began working on artificial photosynthesis in 2004 when the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory launched its Helios program. This marked the beginning of efforts from the Berkeley community to study artificial photosynthesis, Yang added.

Artificial photosynthesis is similar to naturally occurring photosynthesis but with a few differences, Yang said. The chemical reaction in the two forms of photosynthesis are alike, but the output chemicals in natural photosynthesis include carbohydrates, whereas in artificial photosynthesis, the products include acetate, butanal and polymers, Yang explained.

“You can imagine, big picture-wise, we are basically converting CO2 from the environment using sunlight, renewable energy and fix them into useful chemicals while releasing energy,” Yang said. “It is the mitigation of carbon emissions.”

The process occurs on what Yang described as a “silicon wafer,” a material used to produce semiconductors. Yang’s research is currently being supported by NASA.

While artificial photosynthesis is designed to reduce carbon emissions, it also converts carbon dioxide into useful chemicals so that solar energy is stored in a chemical form, according to Yang.

Solar panels convert solar energy into electricity, which then needs to be stored somewhere, Yang said. Artificial photosynthesis solves this problem by converting solar energy into chemical energy and storing it in chemical bonds, Yang said.

Essentially, artificial photosynthesis aims to mitigate climate change, according to Yang. Extreme weather conditions in the face of climate change are becoming more frequent, so Yang and others are developing renewable technology to mitigate such problems.

“I see our work on nanoscience can help to solve this big problem,” Yang said. “Our work on the artificial photosynthetic process indeed is a process that potentially will be able to address all of these environmental and energy problems.”

Yang plans to continue his work on artificial photosynthesis, as he believes the process can be more efficient.

Contact Robson Swift at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @swift_robson.