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Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry


Portrait of Dr Jenny Zhang, courtesy Gabriella Bocchetti

Dr Jenny Zhang has been awarded the 2020 Royal Society of Chemistry Biotechnology Medal for her work in combining electrochemistry with natural photosynthesis to find sustainable ways to fuel the planet.

Zhang is a key player in the emerging field of bio-photo-electrochemistry, in which natural photosynthetic components are wired to electrodes to create semi-artificial photosynthetic devices which can be used to generate solar-powered fuels. "We are constantly discovering new things about the incredible energy conversion processes that exist in nature, and there is a lot of space to innovate more 'planet-effective' ways to do energy-conversion," said Zhang. "This award means a tremendous amount to me because it celebrates the hard work that my team and I have put in to push forward this exciting area of research."

Zhang has propelled the field forward through her research in three areas: First, she uncovered previously undetected electron transfer pathways at the bio-material interface (Nature Chem. Biol. 2016); second, she conducted a rigorous assessment of the electrocatalytic potential of living photosynthetic cells (J.Am.Chem. Soc. 2018); and most recently she coordinated a flagship European Research Council project on "Semi-artificial Photosynthesis."

Zhang is currently developing new types of photosynthetic electrodes for solar power generation, solar fuel generation and bio-sensing. Because these electrodes are derived from living organisms, they are completely sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Zhang and her group are also trying to unravel and eventually control the complex interplay of different electron transfer pathways at the bio-electrode interface, where the electrodes meet the natural photosynthetic components. "Developing bio-hybrid approaches for solar energy conversion can be very challenging because it requires a deep understanding of the biology, the material, and their interfacial redox chemistry. A lot of our effort is devoted towards understanding fundamental bottlenecks so that we can systematically overcome them," said Zhang.

The Royal Society of Chemistry stated: "The outstanding nature of Jenny's work stems from her multi-disciplinary background and ability to congruously integrate disparate fields, eg, artificial with biological photosynthesis, material sicience with microbiology. This allowed her to establish new connections and make breakthroughs in the field."

The Felix Franks Biotechnology Medal commemorates Cambridge University Professor, Felix Franks (1926-2016), a highly distinguished former Chair of the Biotechnology Group, and is a result of the generosity of his family who have agreed to provide the medals. The aim of the award is to encourage and recognise excellence in early career scientists in the application of chemical sciences to the study of any aspect of Biotechnology.

The award is made for the most meritorious contributions to Chemical Biotechnology on the basis of published papers and/or other documentary evidence, including contributions to conferences, over the preceding five years. "I hope that the recognition bestowed by this award boosts the idea that technological success comes in many forms, not simply in patents, but also in laying strong scientific foundations for others to build on," said Zhang.