Scientists aim to turbocharge plants

2012-02-20 09:24
Vancouver - Turbo-charging photosynthesis - by which plants and bacteria turn sunlight into food and energy - in an "artificial leaf" could yield a vast commercial power source, scientists said.

Photosynthesis is "unfortunately not very efficient", Anne Jones, assistant professor and biochemist at Arizona State University, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver this weekend.

"In fact, all of our current fossil fuels are products of this process," she said. But photosynthesis efficiency "could be boosted to increase food yields or sustainable biofuel production."

The world's energy consumption is expected to surge by 100% in the next 40 years.

That is expected even as oil and gas reserves are being used up, according to researchers, who are weighing a range of approaches to harness the power of photosynthesis to power engines.

Efficiency

Scientists said that given the low efficiency of photosynthesis, the top theoretical yield for squeezing energy out of the process with major crops such as wheat or sugar beets would be about 5%.

But if efficiency could be forced up by even a few percentage points, they could be sitting on major biofuel production potential.

Jones said that when the enzyme that catalyses steps in CO2 fixation, called Rubisco, becomes saturated, the process of producing carbohydrate slows down and that most absorbed light energy is lost as heat.

"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," she said.

The situation, she said, was akin to a power plant unconnected to distribution grid, in which excess energy goes to waste.

"In this sense photosynthesis is like a badly connected electrical grid," Jones said.

Scientists want to harness the excess solar energy by transferring energy absorbed in a photosynthetic light harvesting cell via biological nanowires to a separate cell that will produce fuel.

Turbocharging

Howard Griffiths, a Cambridge professor of plant ecology, is aiming to increase the efficiency of Rice's photosynthesis process of manipulating the Rubisco enzyme.

It is a bit like turbocharging a motor in mechanics - but not so easy just yet.

Nature has already seen to it that some plants - such as sugar cane and algae - have a relatively higher-performance sort of Rubisco enzyme on hand thanks to a molecular mechanism called C-4.

This cell machinery may be able to be genetically engineered into rice to push crop yields higher.

Another take on tweaking photosynthesis came from Richard Cogdell, director of the Institute of Molecular Cell and Systems Biology at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

It would use an artificial leaf to directly produce biofuel, using carbon dioxide and water. The biofuel would be a terpene, which "under the right conditions... behaves like 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 said.

"That is one of the grand challenges we are facing - when oil and gas will run out, just to develop new ways of developing solar energy into fuel. We have a window of opportunity of 30 to 50 years," Cogdell said.
Read more on:    research
NEXT ON NEWS24X
SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
2 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 

7 tips for the ultimate family camping trip

Taking the kids on a camping trip can be one of the most memorable holidays they will ever have!

 
 

Where were you when you last felt alive?

BASE jump off the world’s tallest building!
Stand up paddler rides over shark!
Bear Grylls’ top 10 things kids should do outdoors
You HAVE to see this MTB Tsunami Fip!

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Deal of the week!

20% off Afrikaans books, music and DVDs. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Save up to R1000 on Hisense smartphones!

View the large range of Hisense smartphones. Buy today and save up to R1000!

Hot gaming titles – available for pre-order!

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Day Zero Edition, Far Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto 5 and more. Pre-order now!

Get a free eBook

Buy 3 eBooks and get the cheapest FREE. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Bargain box – 60% off

Reduced prices, very limited stock. While stocks last. Hurry and shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

Pushing too hard and doing too much may have left you feeling drained and overwhelmed. You may need time out to recharge and reset...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.