Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Lessons to be Learned from Nature in Photosynthesis

International Panel of Scientists Point the Way Forward

Photosynthesis is one of nature’s finest miracles. Through the photosynthetic process, green plants absorb sunlight in their leaves and convert the photonic energy into chemical energy that is stored as sugars in the plants’ biomass. If we can learn from nature and develop an artificial version of photosynthesis we would have an energy source that is absolutely clean and virtually inexhaustible.

“Solar energy is forecasted to provide a significant fraction of the world’s energy needs over the next century, as sunlight is the most abundant source of energy we have at our disposal,” says Graham Fleming, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of California (UC) Berkeley who holds a joint appointment with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). “However, to utilize solar energy harvested from sun­light efficiently we must understand and improve both the effective cap­ture of photons and the transfer of electronic excitation energy.”

Fleming, a physical chemist and authority on the quantum phenomena that underlie photosynthesis, is one of four international co-authors of a paper in Nature Chemistry, entitled “Lessons from nature about solar light harvesting.” The other co-authors are Gregory Scholes, of the University of Toronto, Alexandra Olaya-Castro, of London’s University College, and Rienk van Grondelle, of the University of Amsterdam. The paper describes the principles behind various natural antenna complexes and explains what research needs to be done for the design of effective artificial versions.

Solar-based energy production starts with the harvesting of the photons in sunlight by the molecules in antenna complexes. Energy from the photons excites or energizes electrons in these light-absorbing molecules and this excitation energy is subsequently transferred to suitable acceptor molecular complexes. In natural photosynthesis, these antenna complexes consist of light-absorbing molecules called “chromophores,” and the captured solar energy is directed to chemical reaction centers – a process that is completed within 10–to-100 picoseconds (a picosecond is one trillionth of second).

Graham Fleming is a physical chemist and authority on the quantum phenomena that underlie photosynthesis. (Photo from UC Berkeley)

“In solar cells made from organic film, this brief timescale constrains the size of the chromophore arrays and how far excitation energy can travel,” Fleming says. “Therefore energy-transfer needs and antenna design can make a significant difference to the efficiency of an artificial photosynthetic system.”

Scientists have been studying how nature has mastered the efficient capture and near instantaneous transfer of the sun’s energy for more than a century, and while important lessons have been learned that can aid the design of optimal synthetic sys­tems, Fleming and his co-authors say that some of nature’s design principles are not easily applied using current chemical synthesis procedures. For example, the way in which light harvesting is optimized through the organization of chromophores and the tuning of their excitation energy is not easily replicated. Also, the discovery by Fleming and his research group that the phenomenon of quantum coherence is involved in the transport of electronic excitation energy presents what the authors say is a “challenge to our understanding of chemical dynamics.”

In their paper, Fleming and his international colleagues say that a clear frame­work exists for the design and synthesis of an effective antenna unit for future artificial photosynthesis systems providing several key areas of research are addressed. First, chromophores with large absorption strengths that can be conveniently incorporated into a synthetic protocol must be developed. Second, theoretical studies are needed to determine the optimal arrangement patterns of chromophores. Third, experiments are needed to elucidate the role of the environment on quantum coherence and the transport of electronic excitation energy. Experiments are also needed to determine how light-harvesting regulation and photo protection can be introduced and made reasonably sophisticated in response to incident light levels.

Structure of the plant light-harvesting complex LHCII shows the organization of molecules that capture and transit the sun's energy with extraordinary efficiency. (Image from Greg Scholes, University of Toronto)

“There remains a number of outstanding questions about the mechanistic details of energy transfer, especially concerning how the electronic system interacts with the environment and what are the precise consequences of quantum coherence,” Fleming says. “However, if the right research effort is made, perhaps based on synthetic biology, artificial photosynthetic systems should be able to produce energy on a commercial scale within the next 20 years.”

Support for this work was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, and the European Research Council.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 12 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

Additional Information

For more about the research of Graham Fleming visit his Website at

For more information about artificial photosynthesis visit the Website at

Lynn Yarris | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>