In a head-to-head battle of harvesting the sun's energy, solar cells beat plants, according to a new paper in Science. But scientists think they can even up the playing field, says researcher David Kramer at Michigan State University.
Plants are less efficient at capturing the energy in sunlight than solar cells mostly because they have too much evolutionary baggage. Plants have to power a living thing, whereas solar cells only have to send electricity down a wire. This is a big difference because if photosynthesis makes a mistake, it makes toxic byproducts that kill the organism. Photosynthesis has to be conservative to avoid killing the organisms it powers.
"This is critical since it's the process that powers all of life in our ecosystem," said Kramer, a Hannah Distinguished Professor of Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics. "The efficiency of photosynthesis, and our ability to improve it, is critical to whether the entire biofuels industry is viable."
The annually averaged efficiency of photovoltaic electrolysis based on silicon semiconductors to produce fuel in the form of hydrogen is about 10 percent, while a plant's annually averaged efficiency using photosynthesis to form biomass for fuel is about 1 or 2 percent.
Plants, following the path of evolution, are primarily interested in reproducing and repairing themselves. The efficiency at which they produce stored solar energy in biomass is secondary.
Still, things can change.
Just as early Native Americans manipulated skinny, non-nutritious Teosinte into fat, juicy kernel corn, today's plants can be manipulated to become much better sources of energy.
Researcher Arthur J.Nozik, a NREL senior research fellow, and Senior Scientist Mark Hanna working at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), recently demonstrated how a multi-junction, tandem solar cell for water splitting to produce hydrogen can provide higher efficiency -- more than 40 percent -- by using multiple semiconductors and/or special photoactive organic molecules with different band gaps arranged in a tandem structure.
The coupling of different materials with different gaps means photons can be absorbed and converted to energy over a wider range of the solar spectrum.
"In photovoltaics, we know that to increase power conversion efficiency you have to have different band gaps (i.e., colors) in a tandem arrangement so they can more efficiently use different regions of the solar spectrum," Nozik said. "If you had the same gap, they would compete with each other and both would absorb the same photon energies and not enhance the solar conversion efficiency."
Photosynthesis does use two gaps based on chlorophyll molecules to provide enough energy to drive the photosynthesis reaction. But the two gaps have the same energy value, which means they don't help each other to produce energy over a wider stretch of the spectrum of solar light and enhance conversion efficiency.
Furthermore, most plants do use the full intensity of sunlight but divert some of it to protect the plant from damage. Whereas photovoltaics use the second material to gain that photoconversion edge, plants do not, Nozik noted.
One of NREL's roles at the DOE workshop was to help make it clear how the efficiency of photosynthesis could be improved by re-engineering the structure of plants through modern synthetic biology and genetic manipulation based on the principles of high efficiency photovoltaic cells, Nozik said. In synthetic biology plants can be built from scratch, starting with amino acid building blocks, allowing the formation of optimum biological band gaps.
The newly engineered plants would be darker, incorporating some biological pigments in certain of nature's flora that would be able to absorb photons in the red and infrared regions of the solar spectrum.
As plants store more solar energy efficiently, they potentially could play a greater role as alternative renewable fuel sources. The food that plants provide also would get a boost. And that would mean less land would be required to grow an equivalent amount of food.
The new information in the Science manuscript will help direct the development of new plants that have a better propensity for reducing carbon dioxide to biomass. This could spur exploration of blue algae, which not only comprise about one quarter of all plant life, but are ideal candidates for being genetically engineered into feedstock, because they absorb light from an entirely different part of the spectrum compared to most other plants.
"It would be the biological equivalent of a tandem photovoltaic cell," said Robert Blankenship, one of the lead authors in the Science paper who studies photosynthesis at Washington University in St. Louis. "And those can have very high efficiencies."
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