In recent years, we have witnessed how fossil fuel reserves were approaching their boundaries extraction. Besides, the threat of climate change, produced in part by the use of these, is increasingly incipient. That is why research teams from around the world look for sources of alternative energy with which to supply the world population of the high demand for fuels. Luckily, and as on so many other occasions, observing how nature behaves usually gives us clues when it comes to solving the problems humanity faces.
A group of experts, led by the University of Cambridge, has discovered a new way to extract energy from the process of photosynthesis. Such a mechanism, characteristic of plants, algae and some bacteria, allows these beings get power from water and sunlight. Using new high-precision instrumental techniques, they have detected which phase of the process is responsible for extracting the energy-carrying particles. Although more studies will be required, understanding the complexity hidden in the stages of photosynthesis could allow us, in the future, to trigger a new source of clean energy.
Despite the fact that photosynthesis is one of the processes most studied by experts, it seems that he still has secrets to be revealed. Broadly speaking, we can describe it as the mechanism by which some organisms use sunlight to exchange electronselectric charge-carrying particles, thus generating its own energy. Among these organisms are plants, algae and some bacteria, the so-called “cyanobacteria”.
In addition, the role of photosynthesis is essential for the preservation of life on Earth, since it is the responsible for the carbon fixation process. In it, inorganic carbon, which is normally found in the air in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), is absorbed by plants, converting it into organic matter and oxygen. Thanks to that, the amount of CO is reduced2 atmosphericwhich is one of the main causes of global warming.
A multidisciplinary team, made up of personnel specialized in physics, chemistry and biology, has managed to differentiate what happens in the process of photosynthesis when we observe it on an almost unimaginable time scale: one millionth of a millionth of a second. The experiments were made possible by a technique called “ultrafast spectroscopy.” With her have managed to study the movement of charges in the molecules that participate in this process.
The researchers were able to note that in the first steps of photosynthesisthe chemical substances that starred in those phases They were also responsible for extracting electrons.. Said observation contradicts what has been said so farsince it was thought that the energy charges were separated in the last stages of the process.
In addition, they realized that photosynthetic organisms showed a regulating medium for which could let the electrons they gained escape in those first moments. Said charge leakage would correspond to a Defense mechanism quite effective by which they would protect themselves against sudden changes in light or the increase in intensity with which it falls. Otherwise, sudden variations in the environment could end the life of the plant.
This new way of understanding photosynthesis could be the first step to design a system with which to extract those electrons of the first stage and use them as a new source of renewable energy.
Since the beginning of his time, the human being has found inspiration in nature. Designs such as the front of high-speed trains, which simulates the beak of birds, or the velcro closure, inspired by the thistle, are just a couple of examples. The process of observing the environment and applying its design to find solutions to our problems is called “biomimicry”.
Although The renewable energies currents are a good alternative to fossil fuels, are not without drawbacks. Both solar panels and wind turbines make an impact on their environment, both in the landscape where they are placed and in the life of the fauna that surrounds them. Also, some of the materials used can become very polluting For the enviroment.
Understanding the mechanism for obtaining energy from the process of photosynthesis could help us in the future to find new routes for the extraction of cleaner energy that besides mimics in a less invasive way with the life around you.
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- Renewable energy sources are those that are replenished in the environment faster than they are consumed. On the other hand, the so-called clean energy is one that does not produce pollutants or waste in the production process. The ideal scenario for the energy transition would be to find energy sources that, in addition to being renewable, were respectful of the environment.
- Baikie, Tomi K., et al. “Photosynthesis re-wired on the pico-second timescale.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2201.13370 (2022).