Planet Earth is the ultimate zero-waste operation. Left to her own devices, Mother Earth wastes nothing. Using only the sun’s energy, each and every natural process is supported, with the waste from one being used to fuel another. With all of our sophisticated technology, we’re still far from achieving this type of efficiency. So a team of researchers from the University of Georgia are trying to steal it instead.
Ramaraja Ramasamy and Yogeswaran Umasankar have developed a process that allows them to capture the energy plants create during photosynthesis, and turn it into electricity that can power the human world.
In the study, published recently in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, the researchers explain how during photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to split water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, which produces electrons. In the wild, these newly freed electrons help create sugars that plants use to support growth and reproduction, but in the lab, they’re captured for other purposes.
“We have developed a way to interrupt photosynthesis so that we can capture the electrons before the plant uses them to make these sugars,” said Ramasamy, who is also a member of UGA’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center. By separating out certain proteins contained in the plant’s cells, and immobilizing them on microscopic carbon nanotubes, the electrons can be funneled along a wire just like traditional electricity.
In small-scale experiments, this approach resulted in electrical current levels that are two orders of magnitude larger than those previously reported in similar systems. While we’re still a long way away from using fields of sunflowers to power our homes, the results are promising.
“In the near term, this technology might best be used for remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment that requires less power to run,” said Ramasamy. “If we are able to leverage technologies like genetic engineering to enhance stability of the plant photosynthetic machineries, I’m very hopeful that this technology will be competitive to traditional solar panels in the future.”