As the world stands on grim perspectives, such as the doubling of energy consumption within the next 40 years and the imminent shortage of oil and gas, the attention shifts towards nature’s resorts. And photosynthesis, far-fetched as it may seem, is no exception.
The principle of it is relatively simple: plants produce carbohydrates through what is called “Rubisco,” a molecular plant “engine” that results from the fixation of a catalyst enzyme in the CO2 strain. When the enzyme becomes saturated, the process slows down and most of the light energy absorbed by the plant is turned into heat and lost.
Anne Jones, assistant professor and biochemist at Arizona State University, recently declared for the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “When it’s sunny, a plant’s molecular machinery produces more electrons than the Rubisco carbohydrate-producing engine can handle, and a lot of those electrons are wasted….The situation is akin to a power plant unconnected to a distribution grid, in which excess energy goes to waste….In this sense photosynthesis is like a badly connected electrical grid.”
The scientists hope to capture the excess energy by connecting the plants, through the use of biological nanowires, to a separate fuel-producing cell. But that is not the only resort we have for plants. According to Anne Jones, photosynthesis efficiency “could be boosted to increase food yields or sustainable bio-fuel production.” This can be done by manipulating the Rubisco enzyme through a natural molecular mechanism called C-4. However, scientists agree that we are still in the very early stages of such processes.
Richard Cogdell, director of the Institute of Molecular Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, takes things even further. He plans on creating an artificial leaf which, through usage of water and carbon dioxide, could directly produce a terpene biofuel. This terpene “under the right conditions…behaves like an octane,” said Cogdell. “We are a long way from that, but we have the blueprint that will get scientists at least half the way,” he added.