Solare Materialien. Foto: André Künzelmann/UFZ

Department of Solar Materials (SOMA)

How can biotechnology contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and to a decentralized energy supply? How can we produce energy carriers and value-added products from non-fossil resources in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way? How can we convert renewable resources to bio-based materials? Which parameters define the efficiency of microorganisms as living catalysts and how can we tune them to maximize sustainability and productivity?

"Utilisation of solar energy for the chemical or biological production of hydrogen is an attractive and environmentally friendly tool, but it is very challenging and still on the level of basic research. It is still not clear whether there will ever be a practical application on a larger-scale based on these strategies“ (Report on "Bioenergie – Chancen und Risiken"[Bioenergy – Opportunities and Risks] (2012) Leopoldina).

The Department of Solar Materials (SOMA) combines disciplines and expertise from systems bio(techno)logy, microbial physiology, biochemistry and biochemical engineering. Today, it is structured in technology platforms and two research groups "Catalytic Biofilms" and "Applied Biocatalysis", to meet the challenge of realising the photocatalytic production of hydrogen and other value-added products. New processes are finally transferred to industrial applications by this highly interdisciplinary and integrative approach. Based on our experience in bioprocess and biocatalyst design, SOMA focuses on the development of new concepts, based on bioartificial photosynthesis, utilising the natural capability of photoautotrophic cyanobacteria to split water with solar energy. This allows binding of the greenhouse gas CO2. During this reaction two highly interesting intermediates are produced: hydrogen, a promising energy carrier of the future, and carbon intermediates, which can be converted in environmentally friendly processes into various chemical compounds via (artificial) cell metabolism. These products are only produced in small amounts, or are directly converted further. Often, the reaction systems are highly unstable. Catalysts have to be designed producing the relevant amounts of the desired compounds in a sustainable way. The ultimate aim is the technically controlled generation of hydrogen directly from water.

Achieving these goals depends on a thorough understanding of the basic biochemistry and physiology of cellular biocatalysts and the control of determinants for catalytic efficiency. These analyses allow the synthesis of a system-level understanding and the design of bioengineering solutions, which can be verified on process levels. Ultimately, this results in competitive biocatalysts and scalable process concepts with quantified efficiency and sustainability.