A University of Limerick (UL) researcher has been given €1.5m for pioneering work on generating clean energy through photosynthesis — the only Irish scientist granted by the European Research Council (ERC) in the physical science field this year, writes Pádraig Hoare.
Electrochemist and lecturer Dr Micheál Scanlon is one of only three Irish-based researchers overall to be awarded an ERC starting grant in 2017.
Based in the €86m science and research Bernal Institute and the Department of Chemical Sciences at UL, Dr Scanlon is working on a pioneering experimental approach that seeks to imitate photosynthesis in the leaves of plants. The goal of his research is to efficiently generate clean electricity or solar fuels, such as hydrogen gas.
Photosynthesis is where plants use light to make their own food from water and carbon dioxide. The process usually involves the green pigment chlorophyll and produces oxygen for the atmosphere.
The scientific community consensus is that the world needs a solution to rapidly growing energy consumption which is projected to double by 2050 and triple by 2100.
Proponents of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology say it is vital to achieve environmentally sustainable progress and continuing economic growth. By 2030 the solar PV market in Europe alone is projected to be worth €10bn per year.
Dr Scanlon’s immediate goal is to study the interaction of light with the artificial photosynthetic membranes he is creating.
He said: “Liquid-liquid interfaces are found everywhere in nature, including in the membranes of cells in plant leaves which are photosynthetic. There are light-harvesting molecules called chlorophyll in these membranes. The liquid-liquid interfaces I use have the fantastic ability to trap and bring molecules together, especially molecules that are similar to chlorophyll. By coating these interfaces in all sorts of light-harvesting molecules I can create an artificial photosynthetic membrane capable of producing energy.”
A native of Templeglantine in west Limerick, Dr Scanlon began his independent research career in the Chemistry Department at University College Cork (UCC). He completed his PhD studies at the Tyndall National Institute in Cork and has a BSc in Chemistry from UCC.
Vice president of research at UL, Dr Mary Shire said the €1.5m grant was a huge achievement for Dr Scanlon and UL.
“Dr Scanlon is one of only three Irish-based researchers to receive an ERC award. We look forward to the progress and findings of his research at the Bernal Institute in UL.”
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner