Today plants use approximately 50% of the visible part of the solar spectrum, meaning that any study on how nature creates energy through photosynthesis is based on a 50% efficiency grade. By extracting chloroplasts and incorporating nanoceria (cerium oxide nanoparticles), scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have now found a way to increase the efficiency by 49%.
The science of biomimetic constantly makes progress, and one of the latest findings is that it’s possible, with the help of nano sized biology for one thing, to take advantage of a lot more light than what is visible to the eye, when creating sustainable, long-term solar energy harnessing systems.
Usually it’s hugely challenging to use extracted chloroplasts for the purposes of solar energy applications, because their organic nature makes them vulnerable when hit by light and oxygen. Light breaks them down very easily, and the photosynthetic proteins get damaged when induced with oxygen.
The solution turned out to be a nanobionical piece of wizardry: by combining potent oxygen radical scavengers such as nanoceria with polyacrylic acid, and incorporating them into extracted chloroplasts through the use of a process called LEEP (lipid exchange envelope penetration), it was obvious that any damage to the sensitive chloroplasts were impressively reduced.
As the scientists then went on to incorporate the nanocomposites into the chloroplasts in living plant leaves, the electron flow connected to photosynthesis went up with 30%. It was verified that the increase could occur thanks to the fact that the leaf now could capture lights from more parts of the solar spectrum, like ultraviolet, green and near infrared.
The expectations now are that this new nanobionical way of approaching the solar energy technology and its challenges, will help develop biomimetic materials for areas like solar energy conversion, as well as light-harvesting. Another area of interest would also be biochemical detection with regenerative properties and enhanced efficiency.
See, told ya’ – biomimetic wizardry, all over the place!
Image: Lydia Liu