Stanford study shows how modifying enzymes’ electric fields boosts their speed

A seemingly subtle swap of metals—substituting a zinc ion with a cobalt ion—and a mutation ramps up the overall electric field strength at the active site of an enzyme, Stanford scientists find. The result is a predictably modified enzyme that works an astonishing 50 times faster than its unmodified analog.

Stanford researchers have demonstrated a way to dramatically speed up the reaction rate of an enzyme, a finding that could pave the way to designing ultra-fast synthetic enzymes for a range of industrial and medical uses.

Honed over billions of years of evolution, biological enzymes are marvels of chemistry. These specialized proteins serve as catalysts for accelerating chemical reactions essential to life as well as processes used in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries.    

Ever since enzymes’ discovery nearly two centuries ago, scientists have sought ways to make them even faster. Most fabricated enzymes, though, have failed to match the lofty efficiency standards of nature-made varieties. And even where some successes have been realized through directed evolution, a protein engineering method that mirrors nature’s trial-and-error approach, these successes so far have been by chance, not because of a deeper understanding of how enzymes work or could be modified to work more swiftly.

Now, in a new study, researchers at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have debuted a modified enzyme that works an astonishing 50 times faster than its unmodified analog. The findings derive from pioneering research at the university regarding electric fields generated at “active sites,” the pocketlike places where revved up chemical reactions occur. Based on this concept, the researchers tweaked the chemistry of the active site, boosting its electric field strength and specificity to deliver the zippy results.  

Read more on Stanford University website

Image: X-ray crystallography was used to investigate and compare the 3D crystal structures of the unmodified enzyme containing an ion of zinc (Zn) (pictured left) and the modified enzyme with a cobalt (Co) ion in place of zinc (pictured right).

New catalyst could cut pollution from millions of engines

Researchers demonstrate a way to remove the potent greenhouse gas from the exhaust of engines that burn natural gas.

Individual palladium atoms attached to the surface of a catalyst can remove 90% of unburned methane from natural-gas engine exhaust at low temperatures, scientists reported today in the journal Nature Catalysis

While more research needs to be done, they said, the advance in single atom catalysis has the potential to lower exhaust emissions of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gases, which traps heat at about 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide. 

Researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Washington State University showed that the catalyst removed methane from engine exhaust at both the lower temperatures where engines start up ­­­and the higher temperatures where they operate most efficiently, but where catalysts often break down. 

“It’s almost a self-modulating process which miraculously overcomes the challenges that people have been fighting – low temperature inactivity and high temperature instability,” said Yong Wang, Regents Professor in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and one of four lead authors on the paper. 

A growing source of methane pollution 

Engines that run on natural gas power 30 million to 40 million vehicles worldwide and are popular in Europe and Asia. The natural gas industry also uses them to run compressors that pump gas to people’s homes. They are generally considered cleaner than gasoline or diesel engines, creating less carbon and particulate pollution.

However, when natural-gas engines start up, they emit unburnt, heat-trapping methane because their catalytic converters don’t work well at low temperatures. Today’s catalysts for methane removal are either inefficient at lower exhaust temperatures or they severely degrade at higher temperatures. 

“There’s a big drive towards using natural gas, but when you use it for combustion engines, there will always be unburnt natural gas from the exhaust, and you have to find a way to remove that. If not, you cause more severe global warming,” said co-author Frank Abild-Pedersen, a SLAC staff scientist and co-director of the lab’s SUNCAT Center for Interface Science and Catalysis, which is run jointly with Stanford University. “If you can remove 90% of the methane from the exhaust and keep the reaction stable, that’s tremendous.”

A catalyst with single atoms of the chemically active metal dispersed on a support also uses every atom of the expensive and precious metal, Wang added. 

“If you can make them more reactive,” he said, “that’s the icing on the cake.”

Unexpected help from a fellow pollutant 

In their work, the researchers showed that their catalyst made from single palladium atoms on a cerium oxide support efficiently removed methane from engine exhaust, even when the engine was just starting. 

They also found that trace amounts of carbon monoxide that are always present in engine exhaust played a key role in dynamically forming active sites for the reaction at room temperature. The carbon monoxide helped the single atoms of palladium migrate to form two- or three-atom clusters that efficiently break apart the methane molecules at low temperatures. 

Then, as the exhaust temperatures rose, the clusters broke up into single atoms and redispersed, so that the catalyst was thermally stable. This reversible process enabled the catalyst to work effectively and used every palladium atom the entire time the engine was running – including when it started cold.

Read more on SLAC website

New SLAC-Stanford Battery Center targets roadblocks to a sustainable energy transition

The center at SLAC aims to bridge the gaps between discovering, manufacturing and deploying innovative energy storage solutions. 

The Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University today announced the launch of a new joint battery center at SLAC. It will bring together the resources and expertise of the national lab, the university and Silicon Valley to accelerate the deployment of batteries and other energy storage solutions as part of the energy transition that’s essential for addressing climate change.

A key part of this transition will be to decarbonize the world’s transportation systems and electric grids ­– to power them without fossil fuels. To do so, society will need to develop the capacity to store several hundred terawatt-hours of sustainably generated energy. Only about 1% of that capacity is in place today.

Filling the enormous gap between what we have and what we need is one of the biggest challenges in energy research and development. It will require that experts in chemistry, materials science, engineering and a host of other fields join forces to make batteries safer, more efficient and less costly and manufacture them more sustainably from earth-abundant materials, all on a global scale. 

The SLAC-Stanford Battery Center will address that challenge. It will serve as the nexus for battery research at the lab and the university, bringing together large numbers of faculty, staff scientists, students and postdoctoral researchers from SLAC and Stanford for research, education and workforce training. 

 “We’re excited to launch this center and to work with our partners on tackling one of today’s most pressing global issues,” said interim SLAC Director Stephen Streiffer. “The center will leverage the combined strengths of Stanford and SLAC, including experts and industry partners from a wide variety of disciplines, and provide access to the lab’s world-class scientific facilities. All of these are important to move novel energy storage technologies out of the lab and into widespread use.”

Expert research with unique tools

Research and development at the center will span a vast range of systems – from understanding chemical reactions that store energy in electrodes to designing battery materials at the nanoscale, making and testing devices, improving manufacturing processes and finding ways to scale up those processes so they can become part of everyday life. 

“It’s not enough to make a game-changing battery material in small amounts,” said Jagjit Nanda, a SLAC distinguished scientist, Stanford adjunct professor and executive director of the new center, whose background includes decades of battery research at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “We have to understand the manufacturing science needed to make it in larger quantities on a massive scale without compromising on performance.”

Longstanding collaborations between SLAC and Stanford researchers have already produced many important insights into how batteries work and how to make them smaller, lighter, safer and more powerful. These studies have used machine learning to quickly identify the most promising battery materials from hundreds made in the lab, and measured the properties of those materials and the nanoscale details of battery operation at the lab’s synchrotron X-ray facility. SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser is available, as well, for fundamental studies of energy-related materials and processes. 

SLAC and Stanford also pioneered the use of cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technique developed to image biology in atomic detail, to get the first clear look at finger-like growths that can degrade lithium-ion batteries and set them on fire. This technique has also been used to probe squishy layers that build up on electrodes and must be carefully managed, in research performed at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences (SIMES).

Nanda said the center will also focus on making energy storage more sustainable, for instance by choosing materials that are abundant, easy to recycle and can be extracted in a way that’s less costly and produces fewer emissions.

Read more on the SLAC website

Structural evidence that rodents facilitated the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant

The omicron variant of COVID-19 was identified in the fall of 2021. It stood out from all of the other variants because of the many mutations that simultaneously occurred in its spike protein1. So far, surveillance and bioinformatics have been the main scientific tools in tracking COVID-19 evolution. Eventually, however, understanding COVID-19 evolution comes down to understanding the functions of key viral mutations. This is where structural biology kicks in and plays a critical role in tracking COVID-19 evolution.

In a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA, Dr. Fang Li and colleagues at the University of Minnesota determined the high-resolution crystal structure of the omicron strain’s spike protein and its mouse receptor (Fig. 1A)2, using macromolecular cystallography x-ray data measured at Beam Line 12-1 of SSRL. Through detailed analysis, the researchers identified three mutations (Q493R, Q498R, and Y505H) in the omicron spike protein that are specifically adapted to two residues (Asn31 and His353) in the mouse receptor (Fig. 1B, 1C). After searching all of the available receptor sequences in the database, the researchers found that only the receptor from mice contains Asn31 and His353, while the receptors from several other rodent species contain one but not both Asn31 and His353. Thus, the researchers hypothesized that rodents, particularly mice, played a role in the omicron evolution. In contrast, these three mutations in omicron are structurally incompatible with the corresponding two residues (Lys31 and Lys353) in the human receptor (Fig.1D, 1E)2, further suggesting that non-human animal reservoirs facilitated the omicron evolution.

Read more on the SSRL website

Image: Figure 1 (C) Structural details of the omicron RBD/mouse ACE2 interface showing Arg498 and His353 in omicron RBD are both structurally adapted to His353 in mouse ACE2.

SARS-CoV-2 protein caught severing critical immunity pathway

Powerful X-rays from SLAC’s synchrotron reveal that our immune system’s primary wiring seems to be no match for a brutal SARS-CoV-2 protein.


Over the past two years, scientists have studied the SARS-CoV-2 virus in great detail, laying the foundation for developing COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral treatments. Now, for the first time, scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have seen one of the virus’s most critical interactions, which could help researchers develop more precise treatments.

The team caught the moment when a virus protein, called Mpro, cuts a protective protein, known as NEMO, in an infected person. Without NEMO, an immune system is slower to respond to increasing viral loads or new infections. Seeing how Mpro attacks NEMO at the molecular level could inspire new therapeutic approaches.

To see how Mpro cuts NEMO, researchers funneled powerful X-rays from SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) onto crystallized samples of the protein complex. The X-rays struck the protein samples, revealing what Mpro looks like when it dismantles NEMO’s primary function of helping our immune system communicate.

“We saw that the virus protein cuts through NEMO as easily as sharp scissors through thin paper,” said co-senior author Soichi Wakatsuki, professor at SLAC and Stanford. “Imagine the bad things that happen when good proteins in our bodies start getting cut into pieces.”

The images from SSRL show the exact location of NEMO’s cut and provide the first structure of SARS-CoV-2 Mpro bound to a human protein.

“If you can block the sites where Mpro binds to NEMO, you can stop this cut from happening over and over,” SSRL lead scientist and co-author Irimpan Mathews said. “Stopping Mpro could slow down how fast the virus takes over a body. Solving the crystal structure revealed Mpro’s binding sites and was one of the first steps to stopping the protein.”

The research team from SLAC, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and other institutions published their results today in Nature Communications.

Read more on the SLAC website

A new leap in understanding nickel oxide superconductors

Researchers discover they contain a phase of quantum matter, known as charge density waves, that’s common in other unconventional superconductors. In other ways, though, they’re surprisingly unique.


A new study shows that nickel oxide superconductors, which conduct electricity with no loss at higher temperatures than conventional superconductors do, contain a type of quantum matter called charge density waves, or CDWs, that can accompany superconductivity.

The presence of CDWs shows that these recently discovered materials, also known as nickelates, are capable of forming correlated states – “electron soups” that can host a variety of quantum phases, including superconductivity, researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University reported in Nature Physics today.

“Unlike in any other superconductor we know about, CDWs appear even before we dope the material by replacing some atoms with others to change the number of electrons that are free to move around,” said Wei-Sheng Lee, a SLAC lead scientist and  investigator with the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science (SIMES) who led the study.

“This makes the nickelates a very interesting new system – a new playground for studying unconventional superconductors.”

Nickelates and cuprates

In the 35 years since the first unconventional “high-temperature” superconductors were discovered, researchers have been racing to find one that could carry electricity with no loss at close to room temperature. This would be a revolutionary development, allowing things like perfectly efficient power lines, maglev trains and a host of other futuristic, energy-saving technologies.

But while a vigorous global research effort has pinned down many aspects of their nature and behavior, people still don’t know exactly how these materials become superconducting.

So the discovery of nickelate’s superconducting powers by SIMES investigators three years ago was exciting because it gave scientists a fresh perspective on the problem. 

Since then, SIMES researchers have explored the nickelates’ electronic structure – basically the way their electrons behave – and magnetic behavior. These studies turned up important similarities and subtle differences between nickelates and the copper oxides or cuprates – the first high-temperature superconductors ever discovered and still the world record holders for high-temperature operation at everyday pressures.

Since nickel and copper sit right next to each other on the periodic table of the elements, scientists were not surprised to see a kinship there, and in fact had suspected that nickelates might make good superconductors. But it turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to construct materials with just the right characteristics.

“This is still very new,” Lee said. “People are still struggling to synthesize thin films of these materials and understand how different conditions can affect the underlying microscopic mechanisms related to superconductivity.”

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: An illustration shows a type of quantum matter called charge density waves, or CDWs, superimposed on the atomic structure of a nickel oxide superconductor. (Bottom) The nickel oxide material, with nickel atoms in orange and oxygen atoms in red. (Top left) CDWs appear as a pattern of frozen electron ripples, with a higher density of electrons in the peaks of the ripples and a lower density of electrons in the troughs. (Top right) This area depicts another quantum state, superconductivity, which can also emerge in the nickel oxide. The presence of CDWs shows that nickel oxides are capable of forming correlated states – “electron soups” that can host a variety of quantum phases, including superconductivity.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Introducing Stephen Streiffer

After decades of experience in the DOE lab system and as director of a leading synchrotron light source, he’s back to where he earned his PhD – with a much bigger mission.

Thirty years after earning his PhD at Stanford University, materials scientist Stephen Streiffer will be back on campus next week – this time with an outsized role to play. As Stanford’s new vice president for the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, he’ll play a key part in advising and supporting the lab as it carries out its scientific mission.

Streiffer comes to Stanford and SLAC after 24 years at Argonne National Laboratory, where he did research at the lab’s Advanced Photon Source, directed APS for eight years and most recently served as chief research officer and deputy lab director for science and technology.

So he’s more than familiar with both the national lab system and the importance of DOE Office of Science user facilities, like APS and SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) and Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), for both fundamental research and experiments with more immediate practical value.

Read Glennda Chui’s Q & A interview with Stephen on the SLAC website

Image: Stephen Streiffer, the new Stanford vice president for SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Credit: Mark Lopez, Argonne National Laboratory

Piero Pianetta’s #My1stLight

First light from the SPEAR Ring at SLAC July 6, 1973
Ingolf Lindau & Piero Pianetta

#My1stLight memory submitted by Piero Piantetta, Deputy Director of SSRC at SLAC

Pilot project to extract synchrotron radiation from the SPEAR ring at SLAC. In-alcove video camera imaging light emitted from a fluorescent screen just downstream of the Be exit window. No beam steering beyond global steering for colliding beam operation. Our group, including Gerry Fisher, waiting to see if beam would even make it through all the apertures. SUCCESS on first opening of line!!!!!

How a soil microbe could rev up artificial photosynthesis

Researchers discover that a spot of molecular glue and a timely twist help a bacterial enzyme convert carbon dioxide into carbon compounds 20 times faster than plant enzymes do during photosynthesis. The results stand to accelerate progress toward converting carbon dioxide into a variety of products.

Plants rely on a process called carbon fixation – turning carbon dioxide from the air into carbon-rich biomolecules ­– for their very existence. That’s the whole point of photosynthesis, and a cornerstone of the vast interlocking system that cycles carbon through plants, animals, microbes and the atmosphere to sustain life on Earth. 

But the carbon fixing champs are not plants, but soil bacteria. Some bacterial enzymes carry out a key step in carbon fixation 20 times faster than plant enzymes do, and figuring out how they do this could help scientists develop forms of artificial photosynthesis to convert the greenhouse gas into fuels, fertilizers, antibiotics and other products.

Now a team of researchers from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Stanford University, Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Germany, DOE’s Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the University of Concepción in Chile has discovered how a bacterial enzyme – a molecular machine that facilitates chemical reactions – revs up to perform this feat.

Rather than grabbing carbon dioxide molecules and attaching them to biomolecules one at a time, they found, this enzyme consists of pairs of molecules that work in sync, like the hands of a juggler who simultaneously tosses and catches balls, to get the job done faster. One member of each enzyme pair opens wide to catch a set of reaction ingredients while the other closes over its captured ingredients and carries out the carbon-fixing reaction; then, they switch roles in a continual cycle.  

Read more on the SLAC website

What drives rechargeable battery decay?

How quickly a battery electrode decays depends on properties of individual particles in the battery – at first. Later on, the network of particles matters more.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries don’t last forever – after enough cycles of charging and recharging, they’ll eventually go kaput, so researchers are constantly looking for ways to squeeze a little more life out of their battery designs.

Now, researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and colleagues from Purdue University, Virginia Tech, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility have discovered that the factors behind battery decay actually change over time. Early on, decay seems to be driven by the properties of individual electrode particles, but after several dozen charging cycles, it’s how those particles are put together that matters more.

“The fundamental building blocks are these particles that make up the battery electrode, but when you zoom out, these particles interact with each other,” said SLAC scientist Yijin Liu, a researcher at the lab’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource and a senior author on the new paper. Therefore, “if you want to build a better battery, you need to look at how to put the particles together.”

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: A piece of battery cathode after 10 charging cycles. A machine-learning feature detection and quantification algorithm allowed researchers to automatically single out the most severely damaged particles of interest, which are highlighted in the image.

Credit: Courtesy Yijin Liu/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Triggering room-temperature superconductivity with light

Scientists discover that triggering superconductivity with a flash of light involves the same fundamental physics that are at work in the more stable states needed for devices, opening a new path toward producing room-temperature superconductivity.

Much like people can learn more about themselves by stepping outside of their comfort zones, researchers can learn more about a system by giving it a jolt that makes it a little unstable – scientists call this “out of equilibrium” – and watching what happens as it settles back down into a more stable state.

In the case of a superconducting material known as yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO, experiments have shown that under certain conditions, knocking it out of equilibrium with a laser pulse allows it to superconduct – conduct electrical current with no loss – at much closer to room temperature than researchers expected. This could be a big deal, given that scientists have been pursuing room-temperature superconductors for more than three decades.

But do observations of this unstable state have any bearing on how high-temperature superconductors would work in the real world, where applications like power lines, maglev trains, particle accelerators and medical equipment require them to be stable?

A study published in Science Advances today suggests that the answer is yes.

“People thought that even though this type of study was useful, it was not very promising for future applications,” said Jun-Sik Lee, a staff scientist at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and leader of the international research team that carried out the study.

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: To study superconducting materials in their “normal,” non-superconducting state, scientists usually switch off superconductivity by exposing the material to a magnetic field, left. SLAC scientists discovered that turning off superconductivity with a flash of light, right, produces a normal state with very similar fundamental physics that is also unstable and can host brief flashes of room-temperature superconductivity. These results open a new path toward producing room-temperature superconductivity that’s stable enough for practical devices.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Science’s great strength is the universal language

SSRL’s #LightSourceSelfie

Forrest Hyler is a PhD student at the University of California Davis and regular user of the Stanford Synchrotron Lightsource (SSRL). Forrest’s research involves exploring the structural and electronic properties of materials that are used as catalysts for carbon dioxide reduction in the lab. In his #LightSourceSelfie, Forrest describes his work as all encompassing as it involves studying materials related to a broad range of applications such as batteries, catalysis and the storage of radioactive materials. Forrest’s journey has involved a large range of scientists and he says, “The greatest part about science is that it’s kind of that universal language. You get to interact with people around the globe working together for a common goal to push science beyond the boundaries that we’ve ever been at before.”

The fourth signature of the superconducting transition in cuprates

The results cap 15 years of detective work aimed at understanding how these materials transition into a superconducting state where they can conduct electricity with no loss.

When an exciting and unconventional new class of superconducting materials was discovered 35 years ago, researchers cheered.

Like other superconductors, these materials, known as copper oxides or cuprates, conducted electricity with no resistance or loss when chilled below a certain point – but at much higher temperatures than scientists had thought possible. This raised hopes of getting them to work at close to room temperature for perfectly efficient power lines and other uses.

Research quickly confirmed that they showed two more classic traits of the transition to a superconducting state: As superconductivity developed, the material expelled magnetic fields, so that a magnet placed on a chunk of the material would levitate above the surface. And its heat capacity – the amount of heat needed to raise their temperature by a given amount – showed a distinctive anomaly at the transition. 

But despite decades of effort with a variety of experimental tools, the fourth signature, which can be seen only on a microscopic scale, remained elusive: the way electrons pair up and condense into a sort of electron soup as the material transitions from its normal state to a superconducting state.

Now a research team at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University has finally revealed that fourth signature with precise, high-resolution measurements made with angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy, or ARPES, which uses light to eject electrons from the material. Measuring the energy and momentum of those ejected electrons reveals how the electrons inside the material behave.

In a paper published in Nature, the team confirmed that the cuprate material they studied, known as Bi2212, made the transition to a superconducting state in two distinct steps and at very different temperatures.

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: How can you tell if a material is a superconductor? Four classic signatures are illustrated here. Left to right: 1) It conducts electricity with no resistance when chilled below a certain temperature. 2) It expels magnetic fields, so a magnet placed on top of it will levitate. 3) Its heat capacity – the amount of heat needed to raise its temperature by a given amount – shows a distinctive anomaly as the material transitions to a superconducting state. 4) And at that same transition point, its electrons pair up and condense into a sort of electron soup that allows current to flow freely. Now experiments at SLAC and Stanford have captured this fourth signature in cuprates, which become superconducting at relatively high temperatures, and shown that it occurs in two distinct steps and at very different temperatures. Knowing how that happens in fine detail suggests a new and very practical direction for research into these enigmatic materials.

Credit: Greg Stewart, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

A new approach creates an exceptional single-atom catalyst for water splitting

Anchoring individual iridium atoms on the surface of a catalytic particle boosted its performance in carrying out a reaction that’s been a bottleneck for sustainable energy production.

A new way of anchoring individual iridium atoms to the surface of a catalyst increased its efficiency in splitting water molecules to record levels, scientists from the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University reported today.

It was the first time this approach had been applied to the oxygen evolution reaction, or OER ­–part of a process called electrolysis that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. If powered by renewable energy sources, electrolysis could produce fuels and chemical feedstocks more sustainably and reduce the use of fossil fuels. But the sluggish pace of OER has been a bottleneck to improving its efficiency so it can compete in the open market.

The results of this study could ease the bottleneck and open new avenues to observing and understanding how these single-atom catalytic centers operate under realistic working conditions, the research team said.

They published their results today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: An illustration depicts a new system developed at SLAC and Stanford that anchors individual iridium atoms to the surface of a catalyst, increasing its efficiency at splitting water to record levels. The eight-sided support structures, shaded in blue, each contain a single iridium atom (large blue spheres). The iridium atoms grab passing water molecules (floating above and to the left of them), and encourage them to react with each other, releasing oxygen molecules (above and to the right). This reaction, known as the oxygen evolution reaction or OER, plays a key role in producing sustainable fuels and chemicals.

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Scientists show the first step of turning CO2 into fuel in two very different ways

Their work aims to bridge two approaches to driving the reaction – one powered by heat, the other by electricity – with the goal of discovering more efficient and sustainable ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful products.

Virtually all chemical and fuel production relies on catalysts, which accelerate chemical reactions without being consumed in the process. Most of these reactions take place in huge reactor vessels and may require high temperatures and pressures.

Scientists have been working on alternative ways to drive these reactions with electricity, rather than heat. This could potentially allow cheap, efficient, distributed manufacturing powered by renewable sources of electricity.

But researchers who specialize in these two approaches – heat versus electricity – tend to work independently, developing different types of catalysts tailored to their specific reaction environments.

Read more on SLAC website

Image: This illustration shows one of the active sites of a new catalyst that accelerates the first step in making fuels and useful chemicals from carbon dioxide. The active sites consist of nickel atoms (green) bonded to nitrogen atoms (blue) and scattered throughout a carbon material (gray). SLAC and Stanford researchers discovered that this catalyst, called NiPACN, works in reactions driven by heat or electricity – an important step toward unifying the understanding of catalytic reactions in these two very different reaction environments.

Credit: (Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Structure-guided nanobodies block SARS-CoV-2 infection

Monoclonal antibodies are valuable weapons in the battle against COVID-19 as direct-acting antiviral agents (1). Central to virus replication cycle, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein binds the host cell receptor and engages in virus-host membrane fusion (2). Conformational flexibility of the spike protein allows each of its receptor binding domains (RBDs) to exist in two major configurations: a “down” conformation that is thought to be less accessible to binding of many neutralizing antibodies and an “up” conformation that binds both the receptor and neutralizing antibodies (3-5). Some neutralizing antibodies bind to the RBD in the “up” conformation and compete with the receptor (6, 7), while some neutralizing antibodies bind and stabilize the “down” confor­mation to prevent the conforma­tional changes required for viral entry, thereby hindering infection (8, 9).

Unfortunately, antibody molecules can be more difficult to produce in large quantities and are relatively costly to produce. Single domain antibodies, also known as nanobod­ies, offer an opportunity to rapidly produce antiviral agents for immun­ization and for therapy. Nanobodies are easier to produce, have high thermal stability and have the potential to be administered by inha­lation.

Read more on the SLAC website

Image: Bivalent nanobodies inducing post-fusion conformation of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein: SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins are in a fusion inactive configuration when the RBDs are in the down conformation (left). Binding of bivalent nanobody (red and green ribbons joined by yellow tether) stabilizes the spike in an active conformation with all RBDs up (middle), triggering premature induction of the post-fusion conformation, which irreversibly inactivates the spike protein (right).