New technology tricks plant cells into making electricity for human use, potentially sowing the seeds of literal 'power plants' that yield clean, renewable energy.
As humans scour the Earth for energy, venturing farther offshore and deeper underground, a new study suggests the answer has been under our noses all along. Rather than chasing finite fossils like oil and coal, it focuses on Earth's original power plants: plants.
Thanks to eons of evolution, most plants operate at 100 percent quantum efficiency, meaning they produce an equal number of electrons for every photon of sunlight they capture in photosynthesis. An average coal-fired power plant, meanwhile, only operates at about 28 percent efficiency, and it carries extra baggage like mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. Even our best large-scale imitations of photosynthesis — photovoltaic solar panels — typically operate at efficiency levels of just 12 to 17 percent.
But writing in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science, researchers from the University of Georgia say they've found a way to make solar power more effective by mimicking the process nature invented billions of years ago. In photosynthesis, plants use the energy from sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This yields electrons, which then help the plant make sugars that fuel its growth and reproduction.