Half of the Earth’s photosynthetic CO2-fixation is accomplished by marine phytoplankton. These are usually single celled, microalgae (i.e., diatoms), that float in the light-irradiated surface of the ocean
(from the Greek “planktos” meaning wanderer) and can process 10-20 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equal to the amount of carbon captured annually by the world’s rainforests1. While floating, phytoplankton makes energy-rich nutrients (food), releasing oxygen as by-product. It is estimated that 50% of the oxygen on Earth is produced by phytoplankton.
Therefore, oceanic life depends on them for food or oxygen. We are currently facing an exponential climate crisis due to the incessant global warming, paralleling CO2 emissions and the extensive burning
of fossil fuels, which in turns is responsible for the steady deoxygenation of the open ocean and coastal waters. “The Ocean is losing its breath” which sets the urgent imperative to (i) globally reduce atmospheric greenhouse-gases, (ii) move to a carbonneutral renewable energy schemes, and (iii) augment oxygenic photosynthesis.
The Climate-Clock is running fast towards the irreversible threshold of 1.5° temperature increase. To add time to the Clock, we cannot address one crisis at a time, but we need a multi-faceted approach, faster than any biological cycle and complementary to other renewable energy technologies including photovoltaics, solar thermal, photoelectrochemical cells, monolithic “artificial leaf” devices.
1) Exploration of photocatalysis principles, molecules, and materials for the combined photogeneration of O2 and FA.
Synthesis and characterisation of novel oxygenic polyoxometalates as water oxidation catalysts, polymers, cofactors, and cocatalysts that will be used to explore different catalytic cycles for the light-assisted production of FA and O2 from water and CO2.
2): Design and development of plankton-like protocells.
Development of AI-assisted methods to gather detail information from Nature and guide the design of plankton-like rotocells. Bottom-up assembly of specialised bioinspired cell-like structures and their structural characterisation. Proof of concept of: a) light assisted cascade processes coupling water oxidation with CO2-to-FA conversion within populations of plankton-like protocells, and lab validation; and b) PLANKT-ON device.
3) Assembly of final PLANKT-ON device, optimisation, and impact analysis.
Achieve optimisation of the integrated components in terms of the current state-of-the-art and their application to proof-of-concept formate gram scale production. Evaluation of PLANKT-ON impact on the real economy, of itscompetitiveness in the scenario of the “green” and ecological transition in the energy production field, in line with the European Green Deal initiative.
PLANKT-ON will have a positive impact on the following 3 key aspects of economy and society: Green hydrogen cost reduction: Green H2 is considered one of the key energy vectors to be widely used in the future for a realistic decarbonisation of the economy. However, its overall current production cost is still much higher than the most predominant type, grey hydrogen (i.e., hydrogen produced through methane and steam reforming, 1.7 vs 8$/kg)33. Therefore, PLANKT-ON will have a positive impact on the EU economy by reducing the overall costs of green H2 production to a competitive level. This will be achieved by using AP to synthesise FA as a safe chemical precursor for green H2, bypassing the need of the currently used expensive renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic and wind farms. Importantly, while in the current industrial green hydrogen electrolytic production it is necessary to use advanced equipment and materials (e.g., electronics, inverters, stacks, etc.), PLANKT-ON proposes a revolutionary simple, unsupervised, and wireless solution by merging the power of AP and synthetic biology.
Large-scale clean fuels production from solar energy source: Currently, most of the fuels used in the industry and in the mobility are originated through unsustainable processes requiring a massive consumption of raw materials.
This causes not only the release of a high quantity of CO2, but also, during the burning phases, of increasing quantities of toxic and unhealthy particulates in the atmosphere. PLANKT-ON will pave the way towards the fabrication of a realistic platform to generate ‘solar fuels’ from FA (hydrogen carrier) through a simple and sustainable process that recycles CO2. FA is also much easier to collect, store, and deliver whenever and wherever needed (for example directly into fuel cells), improving therefore the efficiency of a circular economy based on green hydrogen.
Large-scale oxygen production and carbon-fixation: PLANKT-ON will allow to continuously produce O2 and FA from light, water, and CO2. CO2 will then be produced to convert FA to hydrogen gas, with an overall zero net balance process. The implementation of such device would therefore represent a milestone in addressing climate change and innovation towards the EU vision of Smart Buildings as Micro-Energy Hubs. We envision PLANKT-ON devices being seamlessly installed both on rooftops and off-grid areas, without a negative impact on local energy resources, and respecting the local environment and landscape