Finding a way to use solar energy to extract hydrogen from water may seem fanciful, but a group of Otago biochemists are doing their bit to fulfil Jules Verne's prediction that "water will be the coal of the future".

Associate Professor Julian Eaton-Rye (Department of Biochemistry) is particularly interested in photosystem II - a protein complex found in plants, algae and cyanobacteria - that uses sunlight to provide the energy to split water into hydrogen ions, electrons and oxygen.

But one of the problems that has to be overcome with most solar-converting devices is the damage they suffer from light energy, making them not very longlasting or economic.

"The biological system has the same problem," says Eaton-Rye.

"It is handling high-energy sunlight and the molecules do get damaged in the process, but it is a biological system that has developed to repair the damage." He says they have been focusing, in particular, on how the photosystem II protein complex is disassembled and reassembled when damaged protein is removed and replaced.

"If you can understand the biological repair system, you may have the ability to incorporate this knowledge into synthetic systems and the molecules might have the ability to repair themselves based on the biological model, prolonging the lifetime of the energy-converting device."

Eaton-Rye says understanding these processes will also have wider applications in other areas of biochemistry as well as biomedical research because comparatively little is known about assembly of cellmembrane proteins.


Marsden Fund