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Unlock the Secrets of Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

New research led by chemists in the Baruch ’60 Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research at Rensselaer is seeking to detail the individual steps of highly efficient reactions that convert sunlight into chemical energy within plants and bacteria.

In a paper published in the recent edition of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Energy & Environmental Science, the scientists have provided important information on a specific portion of the photosynthetic process called photosystem II.

It has been a major challenge to directly observe the individual steps of the solar water-splitting reaction that takes place in photosystem II, said K.V. Lakshmi, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology and lead investigator. This finding provides new foundational research into how plants efficiently convert energy from the sun and could enable the development of a new, highly robust, and more efficient generation of solar-energy technologies.

“Photosystem II is the engine of life. It performs one of the most energetically demanding reactions known to mankind, splitting water, with remarkable ease and efficiency.”
—K. V. Lakshmi

“The photosynthetic system of plants is nature’s most elaborate nanoscale biological machine,” said Lakshmi. “It converts light energy at unrivaled efficiency of more than 95 percent compared to 10 to 15 percent in the current man-made solar technologies. In order to capture that efficiency in solar energy technology, we must first tackle the basic science of photosynthesis by understanding the chemistry behind its ultra-efficient energy conversion process in nature.”

“Photosystem II is the engine of life,” Lakshmi said. “It performs one of the most energetically demanding reactions known to mankind, splitting water, with remarkable ease and efficiency.”

To understand the more unstable stages of the process, scientists need advanced scientific tools that can probe these complex systems at the atomic level. Using technology found in few labs in the world, the team identified four important groups of hydrogen atoms arising from substrate water molecules within the oxygen-evolving complex. This is a significant step in determining the fate of the water molecules in the solar water oxidation reaction that occurs within photosystem II, according to Lackshmi.

Lakshmi was joined in the research by Rensselaer students Sergey Milikisyants, Ruchira Chatterjee, and Christopher Coates, as well as Faisal H.M. Koua and Professor Jian-Ren Shen of Okayama University in Japan. The research is funded by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences, U.S. Department of Energy.

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