Chemically Distinct Soap Films Could Fuel Sustainable Energy

by Anna

A groundbreaking study led by chemist Sylvestre Bonnet introduces a unique soap film with chemically distinct sides, a significant step forward in the pursuit of artificial photosynthesis for sustainable energy production. The research, outlined in Physical Review Letters, unveils an innovative device capable of continuously generating these specialized soap films, providing crucial insights into the development of sustainable fuel.

Artificial photosynthesis aims to emulate the natural process by which plants convert oxygen and water into oxygen and sugar, utilizing sunlight as the driving force. In the SoFia project, completed in 2023, Bonnet and his team shifted their focus to soap films as a mimetic platform for the membrane and light-sensitive molecules involved in photosynthesis.


The cost-effectiveness and low energy requirements of soap make it an ideal material for creating these films. The team’s ultimate goal is to produce carbon monoxide (CO), a key component of syngas—a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas—capable of being transformed back into liquid fuel for vehicles.


To achieve this, the researchers developed a machine that incorporates light-sensitive molecules into soap, producing a continuous flow of uniform soap bubbles. Under the influence of light and specific conditions, photosynthesis occurs on the soap films, with the resulting products automatically separated at the device’s base.


However, a significant challenge arose: natural photosynthesis requires a soap film with chemically distinct sides, a feature inherently absent in soap films. The team tackled this hurdle by delicately altering the chemistry of the soap film without causing it to burst.


Bonnet explained, “We had to apply different molecules to both sides, but that was quite challenging. When we tried with a pipette, the bubbles burst. In the end, we used a special mist spray made by colleague Cees van Rijn from the University of Amsterdam. With that spray, we could delicately apply our light-sensitive molecules to the soap film. Spectrometry confirmed that the two sides of the resulting soap film are indeed different.”

With the successful creation of soap films with chemically distinct sides and an automated soap film production machine, the researchers aim to integrate these components into a revolutionary machine. This device, when exposed to light, is envisioned to generate fuel on one side and oxygen on the other—a groundbreaking achievement in the field of artificial photosynthesis. Bonnet acknowledges the ambition of the goal but emphasizes that crucial pieces of the puzzle are falling into place, signaling a promising trajectory for the project.


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