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Solar-driven waste-to-chemical conversion by wastewater-derived semiconductor biohybrids

Abstract

Semiconductor biohybrids integrating the merits of living cells and semiconductor materials have the potential to shift the current energy-intensive chemical production system to a more sustainable one by offering efficient solar-to-chemical conversion. However, cost-competitive and environmentally friendly scaling-up approaches are still urgently needed. To tackle this challenge, we propose a strategy that co-utilizes pollutants in wastewater to produce semiconductor biohybrids in-situ for scalable solar-to-chemical conversion. Specifically, we introduce an aerobic sulfate reduction pathway into Vibrio natriegens to enable the direct utilization of heavy metal ions (that is, Cd2+), sulfate and organics in wastewater to biosynthesize functional semiconductor nanoparticles in living V. natriegens to assemble semiconductor biohybrids. Meanwhile, a designated biosynthetic pathway is introduced into the biohybrids to enable the production of 2,3-butanediol, a valuable bulk chemical with wide applications, from organics in wastewater. Using the obtained biohybrids, the production of 2,3-butanediol reaches 13.09 g l−1 in a 5-l illuminated fermenter using wastewater as the feedstock, revealing its scalability. Life-cycle assessment shows that this specific biohybrid route has substantial sustainability gain compared with conventional 2,3-butanediol production routes. This work can bring solar-driven biomanufacturing and waste-to-wealth conversion one step forward and pave the way to cleaner production and circular economy.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of solar-driven chemical production by semiconductor biohybrids synthesized from wastewater pollutants using engineered V. natriegens.
Fig. 2: Designing V. natriegens to produce semiconductor biohybrids from wastewater.
Fig. 3: Solar-to-chemical production by the semiconductor biohybrids from wastewater.
Fig. 4: Scaling up of chemical production with biohybrid system using real wastewater.
Fig. 5: Life-cycle assessment.

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Data availability

All data presented in this manuscript are available in the paper and its Supplementary Information. Figures 15 and Supplementary Figs. 114, 16, 18 and 20 are available on Figshare at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.24115851. Source data are provided with this paper.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Zhong for valuable suggestions and discussion of this work and the Shenzhen Infrastructure for Synthetic Biology for instrument support and technical assistance. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 32230060, C.Y. and X.G.; Grant No. 22176046, L.L.; Grant No. 32171426, X.G.; Grant No. 52200090, S.P.), Shenzhen Science and Technology Program (Grant No. GXWD20220811173949005, KQTD20190929172630447 and JCYJ20210324124209025, L.L.; Grant No. JCYJ20220818101804010, RCYX20221008092901004, X.G.), the National Key R&D Program of China (Grant No. 2021YFA0910800, X.G.), State Key Laboratory of Urban Water Resource and Environment (Harbin Institute of Technology) (Grant No. 2021TS13, L.L.) and the Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province (Grant No. 2022A1515012016, L.L.).

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Contributions

X.G., L.L., Y.L. and C.Y. supervised the research; X.G. and L.L. designed the experiments; S.P., W.Y. and W.F. contributed to the biohybrid production, and the structural and chemical characterizations; W. Cheng and S.P. performed the metabolic experiment, with the results verified by X.G.; S.P., R.Y. and W.Y. contributed to the wastewater-relevant experiments and fermenter data; L.C., Z.L., R.Y. and W. Chao performed the photoelectrochemical analysis; W. Chao, N.R., X.G. and L.L. contributed to the LCA data; S.P., X.G., Y.L., L.L., W.Y. and W. Chao wrote the manuscript and received comments from all the other authors.

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Correspondence to Lu Lu or Xiang Gao.

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Competing interests

L.L., X.G., R.Y., S.P. and W.Y. are co-inventors on filed China patents CN202310145122.9 and CN202210318999.9 related to the production of semiconductor nanoparticles and biohybrids directly from wastewater by engineered strains that incorporate discoveries included in this manuscript. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Sustainability thanks Shu Wang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Methods, LCA, Tables 1–15, Figs. 1–21 and References.

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Source data for Supplementary Figs. 1–14, 16, 18 and 20.

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Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data, EDS mapping data and photoelectrochemical data.

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Statistical source data.

Source Data Fig. 4

Fermenter data.

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Statistical source data.

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Pi, S., Yang, W., Feng, W. et al. Solar-driven waste-to-chemical conversion by wastewater-derived semiconductor biohybrids. Nat Sustain (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01233-2

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