Art van der Est: Professor, Chemistry

Art van der Est: Professor, Chemistry

Research: photosynthesis, electron spin resonance spectroscopy

Art van der Est is one of a growing number of scientists who are concerned about how we are going to be able to meet our future energy needs in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way.

Van der Est’s research is focused on understanding the details of how solar energy is captured and stored in photosynthesis. All of the energy we use, whether it’s from fossil fuels, hydro electricity or wind power, comes ultimately from the sun. To meet our growing energy needs without causing environmental problems, it’s therefore crucial that we learn how to capture solar energy directly. 

Plants and other photosynthetic organisms have evolved very complex mechanisms for converting sunlight into energy-rich compounds. Understanding this process is the key first step toward developing efficient solar energy conversion technology. Van der Est and his research group use a sophisticated time-resolved electron spin resonance spectroscopy methods to follow the movement of electrons caused by the absorption of light. Using these techniques, they are unravelling the physics of solar energy conversion.

The group takes a two-pronged approach to this problem. With collaborators at major U.S. and European research centres, they use modern molecular biology methods to manipulate the photosynthetic proteins and study the effect of these alterations on their function. Then, based on the knowledge gained in these studies, they also use chemistry to build model or synthetic chemical-based systems that emulate the natural photosynthesis systems. These models allow theories about the physics of light energy capture and storage to be tested and improved. The ultimate goal of the research is to generate solar fuels, such as hydrogen produced from water using light and a molecular catalyst.

Van der Est is a member of a multidisciplinary team at Brock tackling different aspects of this issue and using a variety of advanced spectroscopic and computational methods. Within the new Cairn’s Complex, the research will be housed in the photophysical biosciences facility. The facility, a series of specialized laboratories, will provide the space needed to house the state-of-the-art spectroscopic and computing equipment used in this research.

The electron spin resonance laboratory for van der Est’s research will be one of only a handful of such laboratories worldwide. With its unique array of instrumentation and sample handling capabilities, the facility will place Brock at the forefront of photophysical research into solar energy conversion.