Photosynthesis is known to have almost 100 percent efficiency in transporting, storing and harvesting solar energy. But only recently researchers learned that that feat is possible due to tiny quantum particles that travel from one light-collecting center to another.
Because these particles comply with quantum physics rules they can be in multiple places at once and at the same time they can chose the best pathway to follow saving time and energy. MIT scientists said that they were able to recreate in their laboratory a ‘system’ that copies these quantum physics rules applied in the plant world.
But they didn’t use superfast particle accelerators to do it, and state of the art technology. They only required a set of genetically modified viruses.
Prof Seth Lloyd, one of the lead author of the study recently published in Nature Materials, explained that during photosynthesis, light particles also known as photons are captured by receptors called chromophores which later release excitons.
Excitons are subatomic particles that exist only in quantum physics world. Excitons travel from one light-collecting node to another until they reach a reaction center. These centers convert solar energy into life-giving molecules.
In their journey, excitons can follow multiple pathways at the same time, researchers noted. But they need chromophores to be a certain distance apart from one another. Otherwise the Quantum Goldilocks Effect does not occur.
The MIT team couples genetic engineering and quantum physics in unique experiment to recreate in their laboratory the effect. For this goal, they genetically manipulated several viruses and attached fake chromophores to them. Only the viruses with the proper spacings between the light-collecting nodes were used in their later experiments.
In the end, they were able to double the speed of excitons that traveled between chromophores. Prof. Lloyd knew for nearly a decade that plants make use of quantum physics to boost their energy efficiency. He even published a paper on the issue in 2008. The other lead-author of the study Prof Angela Belcher is a researcher that genetically manipulated viruses to carry energy for years. Both researchers thought that it would be a good idea to join forces and create a system that can approach plants’ energy efficiency.
The team hopes that their findings may help to the development of cheaper and more energy efficient solar cells.
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