Scientists have been trying for years to create biofuels and other bioproducts more cheaply; for example, the process of converting sugar to alcohol has to be very efficient in order to make the end product competitive with fossil fuels. The process of how to do that is well-established but the cost is prohibitive.
A less expensive and simpler method was developed to create the “helper molecules” that allow carbon in cells to be turned into energy. Those helper molecules (cofactors) are nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) and its derivative (NADPH). These cofactors in their reduced forms have long been known to be a key part of turning sugar from plants into butanol or ethanol for fuels. Both cofactors also play an important role in slowing the metabolism of cancer cells and have been a target of treatment for some cancers.
NADH and NADPH, however, are expensive. Butanol is often not used as an additive because it's expensive, but if it could be made less expensively, suddenly the calculus would change.
To create these reduced cofactors in the lab, the researchers built an electrode by layering nickel and copper — two inexpensive elements. That electrode allowed them to recreate NADH and NADPH from their corresponding oxidized forms. In the lab, NADPH was used as a cofactor in producing an alcohol from another molecule, a test they did intentionally to show that the electrode they built could help convert biomass — plant cells — to biofuels.
Because NADH and NADPH are at the heart of so many energy conversion processes inside cells, this discovery could aid other synthetic applications. Previous work shows that electromagnetic fields can slow the spread of some breast cancers. It might be possible for scientists to more easily and affordably control the flow of electrons in some cancer cells, potentially slowing their growth and ability to metastasize.
Plants use NADPH to turn carbon dioxide into sugars, which eventually become oxygen through photosynthesis. Making NADPH more accessible and more affordable could make it possible to produce an artificial photosynthesis reaction.