Solar power could be harvested more efficiently and transported over long distances using tiny molecular circuits, according to research inspired by new insights into natural photosynthesis.
Incorporating the latest research into how plants, algae and some bacteria use quantum mechanics to optimise energy production via photosynthesis, scientists believe they have set out how to design molecular ‘circuitry’ that is 10 times smaller than the thinnest electrical wire in computer processors.
Scientists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Toronto say the key to transferring and storing energy very quickly is to harness the collective quantum properties of antennae complexes that comprise chlorophyll. In nature, these capture sunlight and direct the energy to the proteins that help make oxygen and sugars.
The basic components of antennas are efficient light-absorbing molecules called pigments that capture sunlight for billionths of a second, leaving little time to route the energy from pigments to the molecular machinery that produces fuel or electricity.
Dr Alexandra Olaya-Castro, from the UCL department of physics and astronomy, said: ‘Natural light-harvesting systems collect and transfer sun-energy very efficiently: once a photon is absorbed, there is more than 90 per cent probability that the energy will be transferred to a molecular centre where it can be converted into chemical energy.
‘We are optimistic that within the next two decades current research in materials, chemistry and biology can guide the development of, possibly, hybrid organic-inorganic aggregates of molecules able to absorb a wide range of frequencies of the solar spectrum without deteriorating too fast. These can be the building blocks of the desired tiny antenna units.’