Awards, People, Research, Science & environment

Chemist Peidong Yang receives MacArthur ‘genius award’

Synthetic leaf project aims to convert sunlight into fuel

Peidong Yang at his desk
Chemist Peidong Yang, one of this year's MacArthur 'genius' Fellows. Michael Barnes photo.

Peidong Yang, a UC Berkeley chemist who is trying to capture carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into a sustainable transportation fuel, has been named a MacArthur “genius” Fellow.

Peidong Yang is an inorganic chemist opening new horizons for tackling the global challenge of clean, renewable energy sources through transformative advances in the science of semiconductor nanowires and nanowire photonics.

The MacArthur Foundation announced its 24 new 2015 fellows early Tuesday, Sept. 29, all of whom will receive $625,000 to use in any way they wish.

Yang, 44, the S.K. and Angela Chan Distinguished Professor of Energy in the Department of Chemistry and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, first achieved notice about 15 years ago when he was the first to build semiconductor nanowires and turn them into tiny lasers smaller than a human hair. Photonic nanowires have potential application in compact communication devices and computers, as well as in efficient solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity.

He is currently involved in a large effort to develop a synthetic leaf that uses the principles of photosynthesis, whereby green plants capture light to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars, to instead make useful chemicals, including fuels such as butane and methane.

“On the one hand, this award is recognition of our past 16 years of efforts in the semiconductor nanowire field, but it’s also a big encouragement and more freedom to pursue the solar-to-chemical conversion project,” said Yang, who is one of the leaders of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, an “energy innovation hub” launched in 2010 by the Department of Energy, and a member of the Kavli Energy Nanosciences Institute.

In April, he and his colleagues succeeded in creating a hybrid system of semiconducting nanowires and bacteria that combined carbon dioxide and water to make acetate, using light as the energy source. Acetate is a starting point for synthesizing chemicals such as biodegradable plastics and pharmaceutical drugs. In August, they used the same system to make methane, the major component of natural gas and a challenge to produce in other ways.

“This is the first time anyone has really put together a functional system that can do the job of a synthetic leaf,” he said. “Every carbon is recycled: You use the artificial photosynthesis system to produce the fuel, burn it, capture it and convert it back to fuel again, so there will be no net CO2 emissions if this technology is ultimately implemented.”

Peidong Yang at his desk

Chemist Peidong Yang, one of this year’s MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellows. (Michael Barnes photo)

Both breakthroughs used a similar system: a membrane of semiconductor nanowires that can harness solar energy, populated with bacteria that can feed off this energy and use it to produce a specific carbon-based chemical.

“While we were inspired by the process of natural photosynthesis and continue to learn from it, by adding nanotechnology to help improve the efficiency of natural systems we are showing that sometimes we can do even better than nature,” Yang said.

For Yang, the award came totally out of the blue, since he assumed that “genius grant” winners typically got the award “at a very, very early stage in their career, at the assistant professor stage,” he said. “It was a total surprise.”

“Professor Yang is a world leader in the synthesis and growth of new classes of nanomaterials with useful properties that cannot be matched by conventional alternatives,” said College of Chemistry dean Doug Clark. “Applications of innovations from the Yang laboratory range from producing chemicals and fuels from solar energy to creating smaller and more efficient electronic devices. The College of Chemistry is extremely pleased and proud that he has received this well-deserved recognition.”

Yang was born in Suzhou, China, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei in 1993 and received a Ph. D. in chemistry from Harvard University in 1997. After a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at UC Santa Barbara, he joined the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry as an assistant professor in 1999.

Among his numerous awards are the National Science Foundation’s A. T. Waterman Award in 2007, the 2014 Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award from the federal Energy Department, and election in 2012 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Both Scientific American and MIT’s Technology Review have named him among the country’s top innovators.

He also was a founding member of the scientific advisory board at Nanosys, a nanomaterials company, and is the founder of Alphabet Energy, which aims to harvest waste heat.

Four other new MacArthur Fellows have UC Berkeley connections:

  • Patrick Awuah, founder and president of Ashesi University College in Accra, Ghana, earned an M.B.A. from the Haas School of Business in 1999. Read more about Awuah on the Berkeley-Haas website.
  • William Dichtel, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, received a Ph.D. from the College of Chemistry in 2005.
  • John Novembre, a computational biologist and associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago, received a Ph.D. in 2006 while working with Montgomery Slatkin in the Department of Integrative Biology.
  • Gary Cohen, a cofounder and president of Health Care Without Harm in Reston, Virginia, studied at UC Berkeley between 1983 and 1984.