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Using the green plant playbook to design better energy technology.

The transfer and storage of energy during photosynthesis remains one of the world’s great marvels, and a new study has identified natural design principles within the process that could improve energy efficiency in new solar technology.

In photosynthesis, green plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars and oxygen. It is a highly complex series of reactions, scientists say — reactions that researchers increasingly try to mimic when creating renewable energy alternatives, such as solar cells that use sunlight to synthesize fuels rather than to produce electricity.

One of the more intriguing features of photosynthesis, scientists say, is the photosynthetic antenna. This is a light-harvesting molecular device that triggers the quick movement of electrons from water to carbon dioxide. But in order for photosynthetic antennas to work smoothly, they require the protection of sophisticated chemical pigments called carotenoids.

In a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers from I2BC and five other institutions have identified the vibrational fingerprints of pigments responsible for protecting photosynthetic antennas.The study was published online on June.

“Our study has revealed a fundamental process for energy transfer,” said I2BC Biophysics professor Bruno Robert (Laboratory of Bioenergetics, Metalloproteins and Stress), the main author of the research. “The same way that paintings get bleached by light, materials for photo conversion also suffer from detrimental processes. Nature has evolved these systems with carotenoids that pick up the excess energy and protect the antennas from decomposition reactions.”

Understanding this process, and having a “fingerprint” to identify the specific pigments involved, have the potential to help scientists engineer better energy transfer systems in solar technologies including in crop plant photosynthesis so that nutritional requirements of the expanding human population can be more sustainably met.

The idea for the research grew out of discussions at a summer program for graduate students organized by the Yale Energy Sciences Institute. The principal investigators are Victor Batista (Yale University) and Bruno Robert of the Institute of Biology and Technology Saclay.

Lead authors are former Robert lab members Liz Kish, now at Columbia University New York, and Junming Ho and Dalvin Mendez from Batista Lab, now in UNSW Sidney and University of Puerto Rico-Cayey. Additional authors are Katherine WongCarter, Smitha Pillai, Gerdenis Kodis, Devens Gust, Thomas A. Moore, and Ana L. Moore of Arizona State University, and Oleg Poluektov and Jens Niklas of Argonne National Laboratory.

Support for the research came from the European Research Council (ERC), the National Research Agency, the French Infrastructure for Integrated Structural biology (FRISBI), the U.S. Department of Energy, the Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and Yale.

Reference :
Junming Ho, Elizabeth Kish, Dalvin D. Méndez-Hernández, Katherine WongCarter, Smitha Pillai, Gerdenis Kodis, Jens Niklas, Oleg G. Poluektov, Devens Gust, Thomas A. Moore, Ana L. Moore, Victor S. Batista, and Bruno Robert. Triplet–triplet energy transfer in artificial and natural photosynthetic antennas. PNAS 2017 ; published ahead of print June 26, 2017, doi : 10.1073/pnas.1614857114

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