Biophysics researchers at the University of Michigan have used short pulses of light to peer into the mechanics of photosynthesis and illuminate the role that molecule vibrations play in the energy conversion process that powers life on our planet.
The findings could potentially help engineers make more efficient solar cells and energy storage systems. They also inject new evidence into an ongoing "quantum biology" debate over exactly how photosynthesis manages to be so efficient.
Through photosynthesis, plants and some bacteria turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into food for themselves and oxygen for animals to breathe. It's perhaps the most important biochemical process on Earth and scientists don't yet fully understand how it works.
The U-M findings identify specific molecular vibrations that help enable charge separation – the process of kicking electrons free from atoms in the initial steps of photosynthesis that ultimately converts solar energy into chemical energy for plants to grow and thrive.
"Both biological and artificial photosynthetic systems take absorbed light and convert it to charge separation. In the case of natural photosynthesis, that charge separation leads to biochemical energy. In artificial systems, we want to take that charge separation and use it to generate electricity or some other useable energy source such as biofuels," said Jennifer Ogilvie, an associate professor of physics and biophysics at the University of Michigan and lead author of a paper on the findings that will be published July 13 in Nature Chemistry.
It takes about one-third of a second to blink your eye. Charge separation happens in roughly one-hundredth of a billionth of that amount of time. Ogilvie and her research group developed an ultrafast laser pulse experiment that can match the speed of these reactions. By using carefully timed sequences of ultrashort laser pulses, Ogilvie and coworkers were able to initiate photosynthesis and then take snapshots of the process in real time.
The researchers worked with Charles Yocum, U-M professor emeritus in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and the Department of Chemistry, both in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to extract what's called the photosystem II reaction centers from the leaves. Located in the chloroplasts of plant cells, photosystem II is the group of proteins and pigments that does the photosynthetic heavy lifting. It's also the only known natural enzyme that uses solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
To get a sample, the researchers bought a bag of spinach leaves from a grocery store. "We removed the stems and veins, put it in the blender and then performed several extraction steps to gently remove the protein complexes from the membrane while keeping them intact.
"This particular system is of great interest to people because the charge separation process happens extremely efficiently," she said. "In artificial materials, we have lots of great light absorbers and systems that can create charge separation, but it's hard to maintain that separation long enough to extract it to do useful work. In the photosystem II reaction center, that problem is nicely solved."
The researchers used their unique spectroscopic approach to excite the photosystem II complexes and examine the signals that were produced. In this way, they gained insights about the pathways that energy and charge take in the leaves.
"We can carefully track what's happening," Ogilvie said. "We can look at where the energy is transferring and when the charge separation has occurred."
The spectroscopic signals they recorded contained long-lasting echoes, of sorts, that revealed specific vibrational motions that occurred during charge separation.
"What we've found is that when the gaps in energy level are close to vibrational frequencies, you can have enhanced charge separation," Ogilvie said. "It's a bit like a bucket-brigade: how much water you transport down the line of people depends on each person getting the right timing and the right motion to maximize the throughput. Our experiments have told us about the important timing and motions that are used to separate charge in the photosystem II reaction center."
She envisions using this information to reverse engineer the process - to design materials that have appropriate vibrational and electronic structure to mimic this highly efficient charge separation process.
The paper is titled "Vibronic Coherence in Oxygenic Photosynthesis," scheduled for publication online on July 13 in Nature Chemistry. Other co-authors are from Vilnius University and the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology, both in Vilnius, Lithuania. The work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and the U-M Center for Solar and Thermal Energy Conversion, as well as the Research Council of Lithuania.
Nicole Casal Moore | Eurek Alert!
27.03.2015 | Oak Ridge National Laboratory
How did the chicken cross the sea?
27.03.2015 | Michigan State University
In an experiment at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, scientists precisely measured the temperature and structure of aluminum as...
The IPH presents a solution at HANNOVER MESSE 2015 to make ship traffic more reliable while decreasing the maintenance costs at the same time. In cooperation with project partners, the research institute from Hannover, Germany, has developed a sensor system which continuously monitors the condition of the marine gearbox, thus preventing breakdowns. Special feature: the monitoring system works wirelessly and energy-autonomously. The required electrical power is generated where it is needed – directly at the sensor.
As well as cars need to be certified regularly (in Germany by the TÜV – Technical Inspection Association), ships need to be inspected – if the powertrain stops...
When an earthquake hits, the faster first responders can get to an impacted area, the more likely infrastructure--and lives--can be saved.
The Atlantic overturning is one of Earth’s most important heat transport systems, pumping warm water northwards and cold water southwards. Also known as the Gulf Stream system, it is responsible for the mild climate in northwestern Europe.
Scientists now found evidence for a slowdown of the overturning – multiple lines of observation suggest that in recent decades, the current system has been...
Because they are regularly subjected to heavy vehicle traffic, emissions, moisture and salt, above- and underground parking garages, as well as bridges, frequently experience large areas of corrosion. Most inspection systems to date have only been capable of inspecting smaller surface areas.
From April 13 to April 17 at the Hannover Messe (hall 2, exhibit booth C16), engineers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Nondestructive Testing IZFP will be...
25.03.2015 | Event News
19.03.2015 | Event News
17.03.2015 | Event News
27.03.2015 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
27.03.2015 | Materials Sciences
27.03.2015 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation