Environment & Science

California chemist, MacArthur 'genius' award winner, behind artificial photosynthesis

Peidong Yang is photographed in his lab, office and on campus at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, California, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.
Peidong Yang is photographed in his lab, office and on campus at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, California, Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.
Alison Yin/AP Images for John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

This year's MacArthur "genius" grants are out, and among the winners is University of California, Berkeley chemist Peidong Yang.

Yang uses tiny nano-wires to convert sunlight into other forms of energy — essentially a kind of man-made photosynthesis.

"What artificial photosynthesis can do is take carbon dioxide and water then use solar energy [and put them through] our artificial synthetic system. Then we can make things like methane and butane," Yang told KPCC. "You can basically use [them] as fuel.... You can capture from the environment solar energy and turn carbon dioxide into something very, very useful."

The chemist was born in China and in 1997 earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University. Yang started out as an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley College of Chemistry in 1999, according to the school

He's been working on this project for more than 15 years.

The award, which gives each of this year's 24 recipients $625,000 over five years, was a big surprise for Yang.

"I don't know anything about this award," he said. "They literally told me just like one week ago."

Yang said that the money would give him a lot of freedom in training and research.

Another California innovator, Stanford University computer science professor Christopher Ré, also won the MacArthur "genius" award for his work in web data analysis for tracking human traffickers. 

https://youtu.be/bRmbF9odtk8