Name: Joanna Kargul

Country: Poland

Organisation: Warsaw University

Department: Centre of New Technologies

Lab: Laboratory of Solar Fuels

Function: Associate Professor and Head of the Solar Fuels Laboratory

Please, tell us a bit about the work you do

I work at the Centre of New Technologies (CeNT) at the University of Warsaw where I lead my group, Solar Fuels Laboratory working on solar fuels and natural photosynthesis. In my group we apply the principles of natural photosynthesis in semi-synthetic solar-to-fuel systems. We want to simplify the natural process of photosynthesis by converting sunlight and atmospheric CO2 into simple molecules that can serve as fuel or as high value products.

One part of my group focuses on photosynthesis: how it is regulated and how it can be sustained under harsh conditions. The other part of my group applies the fundamental knowledge of natural photosynthesis to construct the nanodevices that convert CO2 and water into useful compounds with the power of sunlight. We mainly focus on the photosystem I (PSI) enzyme to use it as a biophotocatalyst for CO2 and proton reduction into chemicals. We do this not through trial and error but through rational design of energy and electron transfer pathways.   

When did your passion for the work you do start?

Mainly during my postdoc at Imperial College London where I worked with Professor Jim Barber, a true pioneer and visionary in structural studies of the macromolecular photosynthetic complexes and the intricacies of photosynthetic regulation of solar energy conversion. I joined the group at an exciting time when his lab provided the first de novo structure of photosystem II (PSII), the water splitting enzyme that is at the heart of natural photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the fundamental process for all life on earth, so I am really passionate about that.

My PhD actually had a different focus, on plant molecular biology and biochemistry. I worked on the membrane transporter that is involved in hormone signaling in plants. I was able to prove the function of the gene product, the auxin transporter, which was not known at that time.

Membrane proteins were always very close to my heart. During MSc studies and first postdoc I focused on various stresses in plants and how they affect the specific metabolic processes. In my second postdoc project I focused on the structure of photosynthetic complexes, in particular, the structure of the catalytic centre of the water splitting enzyme and structural basis of energy redistribution between photosystems in fluctuating light. Then somehow, I have come full circle by coming back to these topics that I initially studied as early as in my MSc studies.  

What was it like, moving from biology into chemistry?

Setting goals outside your comfort zone is challenging, but I like a challenge. My dream was to have a team of passionate and talented scientists who can work on the biological aspects of photosynthesis and translate the fundamental knowledge of photosynthesis to create something new and exciting in chemistry with semi-synthetic, and in future, fully synthetic solar converting systems.

My team at CeNT consists of biochemists and plant physiologists who work on the natural process of photosynthesis with a focus on extremophilic (volcanic) microalgae that thrive in an environment that is hostile to other forms of life. The other part of my team led by organic chemist and electrochemist isolates the photoenzymes from these extremophilic microalgae and integrates them via organic molecular wires into various electrode materials. A detailed electrochemical and spectroscopic study of electron and energy transfer pathways follows the construction of each nanoconfiguration, often accompanied by quantum mechanical investigation of these processes.

The overarching goal is to provide rational design of biohybrid photoelectrodes that can operate in a very broad range of conditions. Ultimately, we want to construct robust and well-performing hybrids of photoenzymes with synthetic CO2-converting catalysts as part of semi-synthetic (biomolecular) artificial leaves.  

What is your advice to the chemist who wants to work with a biologist, and vice versa?

You have to find a common language and be able to explain complicated processes in such a way that any scientist can understand it. In our group seminars I ask people to present their data in such a way that everyone can understand it. This is always challenging at first but after a few meetings everyone is able to do so.

I consider this one of my biggest achievements with this group, that we achieved a very good level of understanding that is the driving force for making important discoveries in natural and artificial photosynthesis. This is achieved by combining expertise from various fields to get as much understanding of a process as possible so as to improve the performance of our natural and biomolecular photosynthetic systems.

Is there a new collaboration you would like to explore – any new ventures, new research avenues?

I would be interested to work with a synthetic biology toolkit to engineer enzymes with improved performance, including better product selectivity or robustness at ambient conditions. Ultimately, we want to develop a device that can split water, producing oxygen as an inevitable by-product. Engineering enzymes that can withstand oxygen and still preserve catalytic activity is still very big challenge.

With SUNERGY you work towards fossil-free fuels and chemicals for a climate-neutral Europe. When do you think we will have achieved that?

This is already happening, but not at the scale we want to make a real difference. But we have no choice, we have to combine all the efforts of the best brains in the world, the best engineering skills in the world and the political will to speed up this development. That will allow us to efficiently use the most abundant and for sure most democratic form of energy in the world, that is sunlight.

Most promising solar-to-fuel technologies are at a low TRL at the moment. If we truly want to make a difference, then we need to match our best efforts with sustained and substantial funding for research and development. We cannot afford to have scattered R&D efforts because there is a real urgency to come with technology that can be introduced into the market and provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

What role do you see for SUNERGY in this?

One of the strengths of SUNERGY is that it brings these very valuable but presently very scattered efforts together. If we continue with scattered efforts like now, I am afraid that we will never reach our targets.

SUNERGY offers a unique platform that brings together researchers, engineers and other stakeholders from various fields who want to work together to address the issue of replacing fossil fuels. Without combining various disciplines, we will not be able to think outside the box, truly understand how to rationally overcome the challenges we face in the intricate processes involved in solar conversion, such as improved product yield, to ever make a big difference in the global energy landscape.

What we also need is the large-scale investment that SUNERGY advocates for with the European Commission and national political bodies.

What would be your advice for this generation of students?

Think about whether you want to make a difference in this world, the answer is probably ‘yes’. I see a lot of passion in the students and postdocs I work with and a lot of awareness of the global challenges we face. If you want to make a difference, the area of artificial photosynthesis is very attractive, now and definitely in the future.

The role for SUNERGY here is to make sure that the education of young people is invested in, including PhD and postdoc programmes, and again, ensuring that funding in these important disruptive technologies and associated fundamental science is sustained long-term. We need a sustained and expanding group of brilliant young minds that can come up with solutions to improve the stability and performance of the systems we work, that can carry out rational systems integration.

My advice to young people is to invest their time in this field, acquiring the interdisciplinary and transferable high-level skills that will be part of the jobs of the future.

Finally, anything you would like to ask the SUNERGY community?

I would be interested to hear how the community perceives SUNERGY, how they think they can benefit from it and how we can make a real difference for replacing fossil fuels. It would be wonderful to get some feedback from the community to ensure that we are working on in sync with the community’s needs.