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Pea Plants Providing Inspiration for Artificial Solar Cells


Trying to imitate the plants and the way they produce energy when hit by light, Prof. Nathan Nelson of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Biochemistry discovered a complex membrane protein and founded a new model for developing “green energy”, having this membrane at its core.

He isolated crystals of the PSI super complex from the pea plant, and suggested that these crystals, could be used as small battery chargers when illuminated, or form the core of more efficient artificial solar cells.

In 1905, Einstein explained the basic principles of how light energy works, and this also applies to plants. When a photon strikes the leaf, it energizes an electron which is then used to support a chemical reaction, like sugar production, vital to the plant.

“If we could come even close to how plants are manufacturing their sugar energy, we’d have a breakthrough. It’s therefore important to solve the structure of this nano-machine to understand its function,” says Prof. Nelson, whose lab is laying the foundations for this possibility.

The PSI reaction center is a pigment-protein complex, responsible for the photosynthesis (conversion of light energy into chemical energy). These reaction centers are packed in the crystals and may be used to convert light to electricity in electronic devices.

“One can imagine our amazement and joy when, upon illumination of those crystals placed on gold covered plates, we were able to generate a voltage of 10 volts. This won’t solve our world’s energy problem, but this could be assembled in power switches for low-power solar needs, for example,” he says.

Prof. Daniel Nocera, from MIT, also studied the energetic means by which plants dissociate water into hydrogen and oxygen, to produce energy.

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