UC Berkeley team wins NASA challenge, converts carbon dioxide to sugar

Photo of two researchers
Sheena Louisia/Courtesy
Members of the Peidong Yang group, a team of UC Berkeley researchers, won first place in NASA's CO2 Conversion Challenge after successfully converting carbon dioxide into sugar. This discovery may have positive applications in the fight against climate change.

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A team of UC Berkeley researchers was among three winners of NASA’s CO2 Conversion Challenge Tuesday after they successfully manufactured sugar from carbon dioxide, which could have practical applications for space exploration on Mars.

UC Berkeley’s Space-Sugar with Electrochemical Energy Technology, or SSwEET, team consists of graduate students who are part of campus professor of chemistry Peidong Yang’s academic lab, the Peidong Yang group. The two other winners of the competition were Air Company and Hago Energetics, according to a NASA press release.

“The idea behind the challenge is that, if future explorers could turn the abundant CO2 on Mars into sugars, those sugars could then be used to feed microorganisms in bioreactors to make wide range of materials – from plastics, adhesives, and fuels to foods and medicines,” NASA Spokesperson Monsi Roman said in an email.

UC Berkeley’s SSwEET team received more than $240,000 along with a $25,000 bonus prize, Roman added.

According to campus graduate student and SSwEET team member Sheena Louisia, the team used a process known as electrochemical reduction, which supplies electrons to a catalyst that facilitates the transformation of carbon dioxide. It is converted into several intermediates, including glycolaldehyde and formaldehyde, which further react in the electrochemical process, Louisia added.

The team then used a catalyst to combine glycolaldehyde and formaldehyde in a chemical reaction to produce sugars of various sizes, Louisia said.

“It’s definitely a huge win for us, as an academic lab, to place as a co-winner in this competition among industrial-scale companies,” said campus graduate student and SSwEET team member Stefano Cestellos-Blanco. “I think that climate change is the biggest challenge that we face in the 21st century and I’m happy that this is one of the ways that this research is being recognized.”

Yifan Li, a former campus graduate student in the Peidong Yang group and SSwEET team member, said in an email he was “flabbergasted” to have won the competition. Developing sugar from carbon dioxide could mean that astronauts on Mars can create food and carbohydrates to consume, Li said.

Cestellos-Blanco alleged that the project was the first of its kind to use a non-biological method to develop sugar from carbon dioxide. Moving forward, he said he hopes to continue his research of this chemical process and increase the yields of sugar from carbon dioxide.

Beyond applications in space, Cestellos-Blanco also noted that his team’s project may have important implications on earth.

“Climate change is driven by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Cestellos-Blanco said. “If we can figure out a way to economically convert the CO2 into something valuable like sugars, that would be great because you’re essentially converting a waste resource into something that people want.”

Amudha Sairam is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AmudhaSairam.