(image: Huimin Zhao and John Hartwig) Researchers have developed a new method that aids in the process of making valuable compounds by using a unique combination of catalysts.
Huimin Zhao, Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and leader of the Biosystems Design research theme at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, led the research alongside Professor John Hartwig, the Henry Rapoport Chair in Organic Chemistry, at the University of California, Berkeley, who was previously a professor at the University of Illinois and is a longtime collaborator of Zhao's.
Scientists often use combinations of enzymatic and chemical catalysts to cause reactions that result in higher yields than what can be achieved with enzymes alone. Higher yields are beneficial when scientists want to use these reactions to make useful products such as biofuels and pharmaceuticals. Combining enzymatic and chemical catalysts is difficult to do—the two catalysts aren't naturally compatible; they work best under different conditions and temperatures.
Seeing the need for new approaches, Wang, and his researchers came up with an idea: to combine enzymatic catalysis and photocatalysis. "Lots of researchers have tried to develop new photocatalysts for different reactions," Zhao said. "And enzyme catalysis is a relatively old field."
While photocatalysis and enzyme catalysis have been studied separately, few researchers have put these two catalysts together. The team studied several enzymes and photocatalysts and found a pair that works together. "If you use a light-driven process instead of one driven by heat, then that will be compatible with the enzymes," Hartwig said.