Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Marcelo I. Guzman


Photocatalytic reactions mediated by semiconductors such as ZnS, TiO2, ZnO, etc. can harvest solar energy into chemical bonds, a process with important prebiotic and environmental chemistry applications. The recycling of CO2 into organic molecules (e.g., formate, methane, and methanol) facilitated by irradiated semiconductors such as colloidal ZnS nanoparticles has been demonstrated. ZnS can also drive prebiotic reactions from the reductive tricarboxylic acid (rTCA) cycle such as the reduction of fumarate to succinate. However, the mechanism of photoreduction by ZnS of the previous reaction has not been understood. Thus, this thesis reports the mechanisms for heterogeneous photocatalytic reductions on ZnS for two model reactions in water with sulfide hole scavenger. First the reduction of CO2 is carried out under variable wavelength of irradiation and proposed to proceed thorough five steps resulting in the exclusive formation of formate. Second the reduction of the double bond of fumaric acid to succinic acid is reported in detail and compared to the previous conversion of CO2 to formic acid. Both reactions are carried out under variable wavelength of irradiation and proposed to proceed thorough one electron transfer at a time. In addition, a new method to measure the bandgap of colloidal ZnS suspended in water is established. Furthermore, the time scales of electron transfer and oxidizing hole loss during irradiation of ZnS for both reactions are reported and interpreted in terms of the Butler-Volmer equation.

The sunlight promoted production of succinate introduced above, provides a connection of this prebiotic chemistry work to explore if central metabolites of the rTCA cycle can catalyze the synthesis of clay minerals. Clay minerals are strong adsorbents that can retain water and polar organic molecules, which facilitate the polymerization of biomolecules and conversion of fatty acid micelles into vesicles under prebiotic conditions relevant to the early Earth. While typical clay formation requires high temperatures and pressures, this process is hypothesized herein to be accelerated by central metabolites. A series of synthesis are designed to last only 20 hours to study the crystallization of sauconite, an Al- and Zn-rich model clay, at low temperature and ambient pressure in the presence of succinate as a catalyst. Succinate promotes the formation of the trioctahedral 2:1 layer silicate at ≥ 75 °C, 6.5 ≤ pH ≤ 14, [succinate] ≥ 0.01 M. Cryogenic and conventional transmission electron microscopies, X-ray diffraction, diffuse reflectance Fourier transformed infrared spectroscopy, and measurements of total surface area and cation exchange capacity are used to study the time evolution during the synthesis of sauconite.

While the studies with ZnS presented above advanced the fundamental understanding of photocatalysis with single semiconductors, the environmental applications of this material appear limited. A common limitation to photocatalysis with single semiconductors is the rapid recombination of photogenerated electron-hole pairs, which reduces significantly the efficiency of the process that in the case of ZnS also suffers from photocorrosion in the presence of air. In order to overcome the fast charge recombination and the limited visible-light absorption of semiconductor photocatalysts, an effective strategy is developed in this work by combining two semiconductors into a nanocomposite. This nanocomposite is solvothermally synthesized creating octahedral cuprous oxide covered with titanium dioxide nanoparticles (Cu2O/TiO2). The nanocomposite exhibits unique surface modifications that provide a heterojunction with a direct Z-scheme for optimal CO2 reduction. The band structure of the nanocomposite is characterized by diffused reflectance UV-visible spectroscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy. The photoreduction of CO2(g) to CO(g) on the nanocomposite is investigated in the presence water vapor as the hole scavenger that generates the quantifiable hydroxyl radical (). The quantum efficiency of CO production under irradiation at λ ≥ 305 nm with the nanocomposite is 2-times larger than for pure Cu2O. The detection of and XPS analysis contrasting the stability of Cu2O/TiO2 vs Cu2O during irradiation prove that TiO2 prevents the photocorrosion of Cu2O.

Overall, the studies of photocatalytic reductions on single component semiconductors reveal new knowledge needed for developing future photocatalytic application for fuel production, wastewater treatment, reducing air pollution, and driving important prebiotic chemistry reactions. Furthermore, the design of a photocatalyst operating under a Z-scheme mechanism provides a new proof of concept for the design of systems that mimic photosynthesis. Finally, this work also demonstrates how molecules obtained by mineral mediated photochemistry can catalyze clay formation; highlighting the important role that photochemistry may have played for the origin of life on the early Earth and other rocky planets.

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