• The 2020-21 'Lombardy is Research Award' goes to Joliot, Bonchio and Antonietti

For their studies on natural and artificial photosynthesis: by imitating plants we will generate clean energy

'Clean energy from artificial photosynthesis inspired by nature's processes'. This is the scientific horizon that won the 2020-21 edition of the "Lombardy is Research International Award", for which the Region's prize - conferred for significant results with an impact on the lives of citizens in the field of Life Science - was awarded to three scholars: Pierre Juliot from France, Marcella Bonchio from Italy and Mark Antonietti from Germany.

The topic of this year's Award was 'Environmental Sustainability for the improvement of the quality of life, in harmony with the production system and the transition to new models of development’.

This year's €1 million cheque will therefore go to three researchers who have focused on a crucial chemical mechanism such as photosynthesis, from which the development of biomimetic processes to make food and energy production more sustainable has been awarded.

This was unanimously decided by the 15 Top Scientists Jury chaired by Andrea C. Ferrari, Professor of Nanotechnology at the University of Cambridge UK and Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre, who examined the applications submitted by the eligible Italian scientists.

The names of the winners were announced on Monday 20 September by the President of the Lombardy Region and the Councillor for Education, Research, Innovation, University and Simplification.

The Jury's explanation

“We are in an environmental imbalance,” the jurors point out, “we produce more CO2 than plants and algae can absorb and this accumulation is one of the causes of climate change”.

“Understanding the mechanisms of natural photosynthesis”, they explain, “makes it possible to improve the productivity of cultivated plants through research. In addition, with artificial photosynthesis, the excess CO2 produced by combustion can be rebalanced, producing clean energy instead”.
On this basis awards were given to:

Pierre Joliot
for discovering the mechanism of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen in natural photosynthesis.
The two other winners then developed biomimetic systems capable of reproducing the natural process and thus leading to the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen.

In particular, Marcella Bonchio was awarded a prize for having constructed an organic/inorganic chemical system, based on ruthenium, capable of reproducing the splitting of water into its fundamental chemical components.

Markus Antonietti
received the award for using carbon nitride, a polymer capable of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, for the same purpose.
Here is the full Jury's explanation: “The Prize is dedicated to the vital process of photosynthesis, which allows us to store the renewable energy of sunlight in the form of chemical energy in organic and biological molecules, providing nourishment and fuels essential to our development. Pierre Joliot's fundamental studies have provided insight into the key mechanisms of natural photosynthesis in its biological operating cycle, which uses photons, electrons and protons to break down water in a process triggered by sunlight. 

This has given impetus to the search for artificial systems built with robust and efficient components and materials that can replicate the photosynthetic process, using renewable and widely available resources such as visible light and water. Major milestones have been achieved in the design of a water photo-oxidation system, inspired by the Photosynthetic System II (PSII), which uses an organised arrangement of artificial antennae to release oxygen from water by converting quanta of light into chemical energy (Marcella Bonchio's quantasome), and in the generation of green hydrogen and valorisation of carbon dioxide in eco-sustainable processes (the polymeric photocatalyst consisting only of carbon and nitrogen, g-C3N4 or carbon nitride, by Markus Antonietti, which integrates the properties of natural photosystems in a single material).

The Prize highlights the need for an interdisciplinary approach, in this case bringing together molecular biology, chemistry and materials science, to address urgent and complex challenges in the context of renewable energy and sustainable development. The unravelling of some of the processes that drive photosynthesis in plant organisms has led to radical innovations in agricultural technologies and opens up avenues for improving photosynthetic yields, combining environmental demands (lowering carbon dioxide levels and the use of fertilisers and other chemicals per unit of output) with social and economic ones (increasing primary productivity and thus ensuring quality and affordable food for humanity). Biomimetic systems and carbon nitride-based photocatalysts are already used to achieve selective photosynthesis and photoredox organic synthesis of valuable drugs and intermediate compounds. The use of sunlight may find new applications for environmental sustainability: from the remediation of polluted environments, water purification, recycling and disposal of plastics, in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goals identified by the objectives of the United Nations 2030 Agenda”.

The ramifications for the Lombardy region

These discoveries will contribute to environmental sustainability by helping to stabilise the environment and provide clean energy, thanks to hydrogen produced by splitting water using only sunlight as an energy source.

The choice came after a comparison of many proposals “of the highest scientific level”: A total of 62 applications were evaluated.
The entire Prize process, from the collection of applications to the selection of the winner by the Jury, takes place on a dedicated digital platform based on blockchain technology.

“Our ‘Nobel Prize for Research’ confirms itself as one of the highest recognitions in the world - underlined the governor of the Lombardy Region -: also this year the awarded works place us as an international reference point for environmental sustainability policies, which are more and more important as they involve the well-being of our citizens”.

The Regional Councillor for Research recalled one of the most important aspects of the Prize: “One of the objectives is for Lombard research centres to establish lasting relationships of collaboration and scientific interaction with the winner. For this reason,” he added, congratulating the winners, “it was determined that at least 70% of the Prize should be allocated to research activities to be conducted in collaboration with the Lombardy Region’s centres of excellence”.

The careers of the three researchers

Pierre Joliot, biologist, is professor emeritus at the Collège de France. Born in Paris in 1932, the son of Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry in 1935 and grandson of Nobel Prize winners - after studying at the Faculty of Science in the capital, he immediately began working on photosynthesis at the Institut de biologie physico-chimique de Paris (IBPC) where he focused in particular on the mechanism of water decomposition with the formation of oxygen and hydrogen.

Since 1954 he has been at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique - CNRS in Paris, where he became director of research in 1974. Between 1987 and 1992 he became head of the Biology Department at the École normale supérieure. Among his titles: CNRS gold medallist, member of the French Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, Commander of the National Order of Merit.

Marcella Bonchio is Full Professor at the Department of Chemical Sciences, University of Padua since 2013. Born in Milan, she graduated in Chemistry in Padua where she also obtained her doctorate. During her career she has spent time at several American laboratories. She became lead researcher at CNR in 2011, the year in which she received the Research Award of Società Chimica Italiana (SCI). She has published more than 120 papers in high impact factor journals, with a total of more than 3 thousand citations and an h-index value of 36.

She is the scientific head of the Padua section of the CNR Institute for Membrane Technology, affiliated with the Società Chimica Italiana, the American Chemical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Markus Antonietti - German, born in 1960 - has been Director of the Institute for Colloids and Interfaces at the Max Planck Institute since 1993 and a lecturer at Potsdam University since 1995. Studies in Physics and Chemistry, PhD in Natural Sciences at Mainz University, Antonietti has been Visiting Professor in Belgian, American, French and Chinese universities. He has received many awards and two ERC Senior Excellence Grants, in 2008 and 2020. In 2021, he also won an ERC Synergy Grant together with Patrice Simon and became an honorary member of the Chinese Chemical Society.

His fields of study include: polymers, biomimetic materials, energy chemistry, electrocatalysis and metal free artificial photocatalysis.

Award ceremony at La Scala on 8 November

As in previous years, the award ceremony will be held at La Scala in Milan on 8 November, during the Research Day established by the Lombardy Region on the anniversary of the death of the oncologist Umberto Veronesi to highlight the role of scientific research in the development of the region and society.
go to top