The upshot of this is that the use of neither plants nor factories is required; only the Sun and a 'magic' powder are needed to get the job done. The study, presented in the journal Bioresource Technology, was funded in part by the PHOTOBIO23JC ('Synthesis of novel nanostructured metal-supported photocatalysts: characterization and promising applications in the production of high value chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass') project, which is backed with a Marie Curie International Reintegration grant worth EUR 100 000 under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Researchers from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) in Warsaw say this nearly alchemic transformation is made possible by photocatalysts, which are the subject of their investigation.

Our planet contains areas where water is highly polluted by organic chemicals from industrial wastes. Thanks to the work carried out by the Polish team, we know that the biomass can be successfully transformed into chemicals and fuel. The photocatalysts facilitate the transformation of polluted water into clean water. Another advantage is that specialised plants are not needed, as the transformation occurs under conditions that are commonly met in nature.

'Photocatalysts studied by us differ in many respects from traditional catalysts,' says Dr Juan Carlos Colmenares from the IPC PAS. 'They are activated by light, and the temperature has no significant effect here.'

'My work resembles somewhat alchemy,' Dr Colmenares comments. 'I take a 'magic' powder, pour it into polluted water, stir and expose to the Sun. After several hours, I get clean water plus chemicals that can be used to make useful things, for instance drugs.'

Since the 1960s, researchers around the world have been investigating the photochemical degradation of pollutants, and they have collected chemical compounds by intensive ultraviolet (UV) irradiation.

Websites: IPC PAS

Reference: Colmenares, J.C. et al. (2011) 'High-value chemicals obtained from selective photo-oxidation of glucose in the presence of nanostructured titanium photocatalysts', Bioresource Technology, 102(24), 11254. doi: 10.1016/j.biortech.2011.09.101.

With the help of Marie Curie Actions, scientists in Poland have discovered that it is easy to clean and treat polluted water for extraction of valuable chemicals, such as those used in the production of drugs.