Research by Physics Ph.D. Alum Earns International Award

Duke Team Wins International Chemistry Award
David Beratan (left) and Peng Zhang. (Trinity Communications)

R.J. Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Chemistry David Beratan, Associate Research Professor of Chemistry Peng Zhang and a team including four other Duke researchers are the recipients of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s 2023 Faraday Horizon Prize.

The Faraday Horizon Prize highlights the most exciting, contemporary chemical science at the cutting edge of research and innovation, awarded to collaborative teams whose research opens up new avenues of research in the field of physical chemistry.

In addition to Beratan and Zhang, the Duke team members include Ph.D. students Niven Singh and Kiriko Terai, as well as Duke Ph.D. alums Xuyan Ru — currently a Research Scientist at Eli Lilly — and Jonathon L. Yuly, who is currently a Lewis-Sigler Scholar at Princeton.

two students looking at whiteboard in classroom
Kiriko Terai (left) and Jonathon Yuly (right) were the lead students at Duke working with Profs. Beratan and Zhang on the Duke side of this collaboration. (Courtesy of David Beratan)

The prize celebrates the team’s advances in the field of electron bifurcation, a biochemical process through which cells transform and harness energy. During his Ph.D., Yuly — who was the first student at Duke to address the theory of electron bifurcation — elucidated the mechanics behind the ability of the cell to perform electron bifurcation reactions with very high efficiency, leading to effective energy conversion reactions and biocatalysis.  

The team’s discovery could be the first step towards more efficient next generation energy conversion technologies. Current solar panels, for example, convert less than half the energy received into energy we can use, while electron bifurcation reactions can have efficiencies approaching nearly 100 percent.

“In the long run, this may allow us to make higher-efficiency solar energy conversion systems,” said Beratan in a previous interview. “It could give us a way to transfer the energy captured by solar panels into the power grid or into chemical forms with very limited waste.”

Yuly agrees: “I think we’re still a couple breakthroughs away from these big things, but, on a good day, I think we have a start.”

This is not the first time that Yuly and the team’s discoveries have been recognized and celebrated. In 2021, a paper led by Yuly describing the mechanism behind electron bifurcation was awarded the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' 2020 Cozzarelli Prize. In 2022, Yuly received the Award for Outstanding Doctoral Physics Research in Biological Physics from the American Physical Society. Follow up research by Yuly and fellow graduate students Singh, Ru and Terai placed the understanding of these critical reactions on even firmer footing.

The research that led to the Horizon Prize stemmed from the collaboration of Duke’s theoretical group with an experimental team under the auspices of a Department of Energy-funded Energy Frontier Research Center led by John W. Peters, then a professor of chemistry at Montana State University and Washington State University. Peters reached out to the Duke team, and the synergy between the center’s experimental studies and the work of the six-person theoretical team at Duke led to the breakthrough. 

Beratan research group
The Beratan research group. The award-winning collaboration included David Beratan (far left), Peng Zhang (4th left to right), Niven Singh (7th left to right), Kiriko Terai (8th left to right), and Jonathon Yuli (9th left to right), in addition to Xuyan Ru, who had just graduated).

In addition to Peters and the Duke team, the collaboration also includes Luke Berry, Monika Tokmina-Lukaszewska, Oleg Zadvornyy and Brian Bothner from Montana State University; Michael W.W. Adams, Gerrit J. Schut, Diep M. Nguyen and Gina L. Lipscomb from the University of Georgia; David P. Jennings and Anne K. Jones from Arizona State University, Carolyn E. Lubner, David W. Mulder and Paul King from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Anne-Frances Miller and John Hoben from the University of Kentucky.