A Lesson from Plants in Harvesting Energy

Sunlight and hydrogen replace fossil fuels

Humankind relies greatly on fossil fuels which historically have been abundant and are energy-rich, but which also contribute to pollution, affecting our climate. Alternative energy sources that do not harm the planet are necessary for sustaining future generations. Dr. Kara Bren, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Rochester, uses biomolecules to help create inexpensive fuel and storing the sun’s energy when the sun isn’t shining. The systems Dr. Bren creates convert light energy into chemical energy by driving the synthesis of a fuel, similar to the process of photosynthesis in plants -- using sunlight and water to make hydrogen fuels. Termed “artificial photosynthesis,” the energy produced and stored by Dr. Bren and her team is a convenient source of fuel that provides a clean, carbon-free fuel cycle.

Dr. Bren’s use of nontoxic, environmentally friendly, and biodegradable molecules to convert solar energy into chemical energy offers a unique approach to the global energy problem. Specifically, she and her group are using proteins and metal-peptide complexes, which are some of the most efficient catalysts but have received less study than synthetic systems. Furthermore, her approach also allows her team to gain new insights into how nature performs similar reactions, and thus contributes to building fundamental knowledge. Dr. Bren’s group has successfully made their first generation biomolecular catalysts, and expects to characterize them in the next few years. Therefore, this research has the potential to move out of the lab as it is scaled-up for energy solutions in the near future.

Current research includes:

  • New Biological Pathways: Conducting artificial photosynthesis requires a source of electrons, which typically amounts to scientists adding a specific chemical to the reaction. Dr. Bren is developing novel biological pathways to provide those electrons in a sustainable manner.

  • Sustainable Fuels: Dr. Bren is working to convert water into fuel, similar to the way in which plants convert sunlight and water into energy to grow. This research would build the foundation for future energy applications that are clean, efficient, and biobased.

Bio

From a young age, Dr. Kara Bren’s interests in science motivated her towards a curiosity about the world around her. Her father, a middle school science teacher, was constantly pointing out the magic that science presented in their day-to-day lives. Dr. Bren remembers family vacations where her dad would teach her about minerals, stars, and the planets. Even while at home, she would curl up next to her dad to watch NOVA, perhaps even before she understood what was going on. His excitement and passion for understanding the world gave her a thrill as well.

Dr. Bren’s interest in chemistry came to light while in college. When she began taking various courses, she realized that chemistry had branches to all other areas of science. For this reason, she felt like pursuing chemistry would allow her to discover new and exciting things in many different directions, or even in an entirely unforeseeable one. Furthermore, she appreciated that through working in chemistry she could have an influence on the molecular perspective of life. Since the beginnings of her career in chemistry, Dr. Bren has found that she can both express her creativity and learn how things work through chemistry. She continues to be excited because of both the beauty of molecules and the practical aspects of chemistry as a science.

In her free time, aside from research, Dr. Bren enjoys playing the piano, a talent she has fostered since she was three years old. Coming from a musical family, she recalls each of her family members playing an instrument and enjoying music together. In fact, Dr. Bren even played the piano on TV when she was five. Unfortunately, the recording has since been lost; however, she remembers with clarity the nerves she had while settling upon the piano bench in her ruffled dress. Aside from music, Dr. Bren also enjoys the company of her dog and cross country skiing.

Website: http://chem.rochester.edu/~kbgrp/

Publications

Multidisciplinary Approaches to Solar Hydrogen

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Investigations of Heme Distortion, Low-Frequency Vibrational Excitations, and Electron Transfer in Cytochrome c

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Hydrogen Evolution from Neutral Water Under Aerobic Conditions Catalyzed by Cobalt-microperoxidase-11

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Affinity Purification of Heme-tagged Proteins

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Heme-Protein Vibrational Couplings in Cytochrome c Provide a Dynamic Link that Connects the Heme-Iron and the Protein Surface

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Awards

Guest Professor of Biochemistry, Lund University, Sweden, 2014

American Chemical Society PROGRESS/Dreyfus Lectureship Award, 2006

Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, 2003-2005

Paul Saltman Memorial Lecturer, 2004

NIH National Research Service Award, 1996-1997