Photobioenergetics: The Next Generation in Solar Energy

ChloroplastsPhoto: Kristian Peters

Picture a small impoverished family farm in central Africa. There are no appliances, no lights, no telephones. Indeed, there’s no electric power. Water is hand drawn from a well share with other families. A rickety old truck drives up to the house. A man gets out of the truck and talks with the men of the tiny settlement. Together, they climb up on the corrugated tin roof of the farmer’s dwelling and paint the roof green. The truck driver attaches a receptacle at the corner of the roof. He runs a cable from the receptacle to a battery. This is done for each house. When night comes, instead of fires, the area comes alive with lights.

Now picture a middle class home in an American suburban community. In each house, all the appliances are running. The air conditioners purr, the computers flicker, the TVs blare. Interestingly, there are no power lines in the neighborhood, no elevated cables strung amongst the trees, no underground. Best of all, there are no electric meters. Next to each house is a small shed housing a series of cubical batteries. A conduit runs discretely from the sheds to the roofs, each of which is painted green.

How can both communities have energy independence? They do it with a green paint which is filled tiny nanocapsules. Sounds like science fiction? Today, scientists are working on a revolutionary new technology called Warzburg Nanocapsules. Inside these nanocapsules are molecules called Bispyrenes. These molecules are able to change their shape to suit their environment. When there is acidity, they become elongated. If the acidity is high, they fold. If the pH value rises, the molecules fold.

When exposed to UV light (such as in sunlight), they become excited and emit different colored fluorescent light. When long, the fluorescent light is blue; when folded, the fluorescent light is green. In other shapes, the bispyrenes emit red fluorescence. To accomplish this, the nanocapsules are transposing UV light to florescent using processes which occur at the molecular level.

Warzburg CapsulePhoto: Russell Vallimont

For hundreds of millions of years, green plants have converted sunlight into chemical energy through the process of photosynthesis. One of the recent achievements of energy scientists has been to create an artificial photosynthesis that uses sunlight, carbon dioxide and water to produce usable energy. Researchers, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have discovered that nano-crystals can effectively split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, releasing the energy of this molecular bond, into a usable form.

Why should we spend money to conduct research into artificial photosynthesis? Don’t plants already do that for us? In photosynthesis, plants consume carbon dioxide and water and turn it into usable energy. Many scientists see artificial photosynthesis as a means of form of carbon dioxide reduction. They envision reducing the volume of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At the same time, this photobioenergetics would also produce energy in homes, businesses, farms and elsewhere.

For more information see “Photobioenergetics,” http://www.rsbs.anu.edu.au/ResearchGroups/PBE/index.php,
Nanocapsules for Artificial Photosynthesis,http://www.nanowerk.com/news/newsid=13409.php,
Turning sunlight into liquid fuels,http://newscenter.lbl.gov/press-releases/2009/03/10/turning-sunlight-into-liquid-fuels-berkeley-lab-researchers-create-a-nano-sized-photocatalyst-for-artificial-photosynthesis/,
and “Artificial Photosynthesis,” wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_photosynthesis

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