Scientists at UC Berkeley have identified a protein that controls the flow of solar energy into organisms, which one day potentially could lead to much more efficient solar panels.
The pigment-binding protein CP29, found inside green plants, acts as a valve to release or block solar energy. The scientists further went onto to speculate that control over the protein might be possible through raising or lowering pH levels.
Conceivably, an artificial version of the protein could be incorporated into solar panels that work on photosynthetic principles. Scientists at MIT and other places are already trying to adapt photosynthesis for solar energy. Green plants are able to convert sunlight to chemical energy (note, not electrical emergy) at an energy transfer efficiency rate of approximately 97 percent, according to UC Berkeley. That’s a lot better than solar panels. Crystalline silicon panels are expected to top out at 29 percent efficiency.
Synthetic biology, the science of re-creating natural processes in industrial settings, is also being deployed to develop artificial microbes that, ideally, will convert plant matter into fuel cheaply. Nature has been around for millions of years, venture capitalists Steve Jurvetson among others have noted, and proteins and microbes are one class of employees that don’t require benefits packages. Back in 2002, when speakers talked about synthetic biology at conferences, most of the audience went “huh???? But since then companies like Amryis (medicines and fuel from synthetic biology) and Synthetic Genomics have made progress, garnered VC funds, and stopped the confused snickering.
“This is really the first detailed picture ever obtained of the molecular mechanism behind the regulation of light harvesting energy,??? said Graham Fleming, one of the leaders of the project, in a prepared statement. “We believe we will soon be in position to build a complete model of the flow of energy through the photosynthetic light harvesting system that will include how the flow is controlled. This model could then be applied to the engineering of artificial versions of photosynthesis.???
Here is a diagram of how it works. If you can figure it out, I will give you a microbiology merit badge.