Mimicking natural photosynthetic structures, researchers have built synthetic circuits that can be used for super-efficient, light-harvesting systems.

A key mechanism for all life, whether directly or indirectly, is photosynthesis. This refers to the process of harvesting, converting, and using the energy of sunlight.

Scientists are looking for ways to make artificial photosynthesis systems that would address some of the most urgent energy and environmental issues, such as sustainable, clean energy.

This is a more challenging task than it seems. Why? Because, photosynthesis, while an old concept, is still relatively mysterious.

Photosynthesis, a Complex Process on Which not Only Plants, but all Life Forms Depend

Thanks to the power of light, the natural chemical process of photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide and water into organic substances (such as sugar) and produces oxygen, a sine qua non for life to thrive.

Without the oxygen generated by plants via photosynthesis, life on Earth would not be buzzing with such innumerable and amazing life forms.

Plants ensure the oxygen-rich atmosphere, thus providing a basic energy source to virtually all living organisms, humans included, who owe their existence either directly or indirectly to photosynthesis.

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The laws of classic physics can’t explain all the workings of photosynthesis, and to better understand how it works, we’d have to look to quantum physic–which also plays a crucial role in biology.

Yes! Plants, having perfected this process after billions of years of evolution, have some quantum tricks up their sleeve!

Several studies suggest that the near 100% efficiency of photosynthesis can be traced back to what’s known as quantum coherence, which allows chromophores to propagate photon excitation all over the molecular network.

Chromophores are photosensitive molecules in plants that are tightly packed on cellular scaffolds, thanks to which the plant converts photons into excitons, a form of energy.

Mimicking The Natural Light-Harvesting Process

If fiber optics and semiconductors were developed to carry photons and electrons respectively, there’s no technique for carrying excitons, yet.

A team of researchers from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, Harvard, and MIT is working to replicate this naturally-occurring photosynthetic structure to build ultra-efficient artificial light-harvesting systems.

To build synthetic chromophores, the team arranged, at the nanometer scale, light-sensitive pigments on a DNA scaffold in a way that duplicates natural photosynthetic structures.

“This bottom-up strategy offers a versatile approach to the rational design of strongly coupled excitonic circuits using spatially organized dye aggregates for use in coherent nanoscale energy transport, artificial light-harvesting, and nanophotonics,” said authors of the study that appeared in Nature Materials.

These light-harvesting synthetic circuits, which demonstrate exciton carrying properties, can be incorporated into different 2D and 3D materials to turn them into super-efficient solar panels. Such a prospect couldn’t be thought possible without the collaborative effort from three research institutions.

“multidisciplinary research that tightly couples synthesis, theory, and characterization was required to get to this point,” said Harvard’s Alan Aspuru-Guzik.

How could the harvesting of photosynthesis-like sunlight-to-energy conversion revolutionize our energy infrastructure? 

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