Peidong Yang’s Personal Story of Discovery

Peidong Yang learned early in his career that being able to think about a problem from more than one vantage point can yield surprising results. Now his interdisciplinary mindset could open new doors in artificial photosynthesis.


Yang is the S.K. and Angela Chan Distinguished Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry at  University of California, Berkeley. He is also the Founding Dean at the School of Physical Science & Technology at ShanghaiTech University. He is an Associate Editor for the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“My interest in science, most specifically in chemistry, I would say really started during my undergraduate years,” said Yang. “I graduated from the University of Science & Technology in China, which is located in Hefei, China. I got into the research lab in my second year over there.”

Early experiences in the lab in China, and later at Harvard University in the lab of his Ph.D. advisor Charles M. Lieber, gave Yang an appreciation for interdisciplinary research with practical applications.

At University of California, Berkeley, his research background led him to develop a revolutionary artificial photosynthesis solution that combines the light-capturing power of semiconductor nanowires with the natural C02 processing abilities of a biological catalyst.

“Of course, back then,” Yang said. “When I would discuss this idea with my colleagues, sometimes they would laugh at me because this is so strange.”

The potential for this unique artificial photosynthesis solution could go beyond reducing CO2 levels on Earth. NASA is funding a research center to explore using that technology to bring oxygen to Mars. “If we are going to send crewmembers to Mars, they need oxygen, they need energy.”

Yang’s work shows that great things can happen when you’re willing to look at a problem from an interdisciplinary perspective. Now the vision and leadership he’s shown at University of California, Berkeley, is also having an impact at ShanghaiTech University, where he is assisting in setting up the School of Physical Science & Technology. His approach is to recruit faculty from diverse areas of science backgrounds and have them work together.

“I think the setting up of this specific university is really trying to encourage the young generation of scientists to be independent and to think freely in terms of what scientific problem to attack. And this is the spirit within this university.”

Read Selected Research from Professor Peidong Yang:

Nanowire–Bacteria Hybrids for Unassisted Solar Carbon Dioxide Fixation to Value-Added Chemicals
Nano Lett., 2015, 15 (5), pp 3634–3639
DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.5b01254

Cysteine–Cystine Photoregeneration for Oxygenic Photosynthesis of Acetic Acid from CO2 by a Tandem Inorganic–Biological Hybrid System
Nano Lett., 2016, 16 (9), pp 5883–5887
DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b02740

Cyborgian Material Design for Solar Fuel Production: The Emerging Photosynthetic Biohybrid Systems
Acc. Chem. Res., 2017, 50 (3), pp 476–481
DOI: 10.1021/acs.accounts.6b00483

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