Plugging in to photosynthesis

Feb. 11, 2009
Japanese researchers have figured out a way to "tap" electricity from a biological photosynthetic system, essentially creating a photosynthetic solar cell.

Japanese researchers have figured out a way to "tap" electricity from a biological photosynthetic system, essentially creating a photosynthetic solar cell.1

Plants, algae, and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) can almost completely transform captured sunlight into chemical energy. This is in part because the electrons are set free by the photons in a one-to-one ratio, then transported out of the "light receptor" to be used as the driving force for chemical reactions. Now, Nao Terasaki and his group from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (Tosu, Japan) has developed a new process to capture light energy with nearly equal efficiency. As Terasaki reports in the journal Angewandte Chemie, they "plug" a molecular "wire" directly into a biological photosynthetic system to efficiently conduct the free electrons to a gold electrode.

The efficiency of photovoltaic energy conversion is of critical significance for the practical application of solar installations. Theoretically, every photon absorbed should release one electron. Whereas modern solar cells are far from achieving high efficiency, natural photosynthetic systems achieve nearly 100% quantum yield. To improve the efficiency of synthetic systems, experiments have been attempted in which biological light-capturing units were deposited onto electrodes as thin films. However, the transfer of electrons from the light-capturing layer into the circuit in this type of system is so inefficient that most of the electrons don't even make it to the target electrode.

The secret to the success of natural photosystems is the perfect fit of the individual components. The molecules fit together like plugs and sockets and can pass electrons on directly and nearly without loss. The new approach taken by the Japanese researchers connects photosystem I (PSI) from the blue-green algae Thermosynechococcus elongatus with a synthetic apparatus. An important component of the electron transmission sequence of PSI is vitamin K1. The researchers removed the vitamin K1 from the PSI protein complex and replaced it with a synthetic analogue. This consists of three parts: 1) The same molecular "plug" with which vitamin K1 is bound to the protein complex (napthoquinone group) is used to plug in the synthetic binding component to PSI; 2) a molecular "wire" (hydrocarbon chain) with the same length as in vitamin K1 ensures that the binding component protrudes from the protein complex; and 3) at the other end of the wire is an additional "plug" (viologen group) that anchors the ensemble to a specially coated gold electrode. Electrons released by irradiation of PSI and transmitted along the wire are very efficiently transmitted to the gold electrode by the viologen group.

It may be possible to use this new strategy to integrate other biocomponents into synthetic systems.

1. N. Terasaki, Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2009, 48, No. 9, 1585-1587, doi: 10.1002/anie.200805748

About the Author

John Wallace | Senior Technical Editor (1998-2022)

John Wallace was with Laser Focus World for nearly 25 years, retiring in late June 2022. He obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and physics at Rutgers University and a master's in optical engineering at the University of Rochester. Before becoming an editor, John worked as an engineer at RCA, Exxon, Eastman Kodak, and GCA Corporation.

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