Transforming Wastewater into Valuable Chemicals with Sunlight: A Green Breakthrough in Sustainable Manufacturing

Date:12-10-2023   |   【Print】 【close

Researchers led by Prof. GAO Xiang from the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology (SIAT) of the Chinese Academy of Science and Prof. LU Lu from Harbin Institute of Technology have achieved a novel method to harness sunlight and transform wastewater contaminants into valuable chemicals.

Their research, recently published in Nature Sustainability on Oct. 16, paves the way for sustainable and eco-friendly chemical manufacturing. 

Conventional chemical manufacturing heavily relies on energy-intensive processes, and the world is in dire need of more sustainable alternatives. Semiconductor biohybrids have emerged as an exciting advancement in this pursuit, capable of utilizing solar energy for chemical production. However, the challenge lies in finding an economically viable and environmentally friendly approach to scale up this technology. 

In this innovative study, the researchers set out to convert pollutants from wastewater into semiconductor biohybrids directly in the wastewater environment. The concept involves utilizing the organic carbon, heavy metals, and sulfate compounds present in wastewater as the raw materials to construct these biohybrids, subsequently converting them into valuable chemicals. 

Nevertheless, the intricate composition of real industrial wastewater, which often contains a myriad of pollutants and high levels of dissolved oxygen, presented formidable challenges. To overcome this, the researchers ingeniously designed a cell factory capable of producing semiconductor biohybrids directly from such wastewater. Their primary target chemical for production was 2,3-butanediol (BDO), a valuable commodity chemical. 

By engineering a strain of Vibrio natriegens, they successfully generated hydrogen sulfide, which played a pivotal role in facilitating the production of CdS nanoparticles. These nanoparticles, renowned for their biocompatibility, enabled the in-situ creation of semiconductor biohybrids. Remarkably, these biohybrids could be produced using a variety of wastewater sources. 

The results of their research showcase that these sunlight-activated biohybrids exhibited significantly enhanced BDO production, surpassing yields achievable through bacterial cells alone. Furthermore, the process displayed scalability, achieving solar-driven BDO production on a substantial 5-liter scale using actual wastewater. 

A comprehensive life-cycle assessment (LCA) of the process yielded two resounding endorsements for its environmental friendliness. The biohybrid platform not only boasts a lower carbon footprint but also reduces product costs, leading to an overall smaller environmental impact when compared to both traditional bacterial fermentation and fossil fuel-based BDO production methods. 

Prof. GAO expressed, "Our work serves as a vital bridge between the scientific understanding of biohybrids and their practical applications. It offers a cost-effective and environmentally conscious method for sustainable biomanufacturing. This is a significant leap towards harnessing sunlight for biomanufacturing and turning waste into wealth, laying the groundwork for a cleaner and more circular economy." 


A green chemical manufacturing makes a greener life. (Image by SIAT) 


Media Contact:
ZHANG Xiaomin