themadscientists

How many roads must a particle go? Plants as the ultimate fuel-factories.

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2011 at 13:55

Photons from the sun hitting a leaf resulting in photosynthesis, the chemical process that feeds us all.

Scientists have discovered that plants can transport energy in it`s internal structure with unprecedented efficiency, making it possible to think of hyper-efficient biological solar cells for commercial use. A company called Joule Unlimited, claim they have developed a technology that allows them to convert sunlight, water and C02 from the air, into bio-fuels such as ethanol or diesel with much greater efficiency than ordinary bio-fuel processes such as fermentation. In the future, the company said they will be able to produce biofuel at $30 per barrel. A big difference from the $ 100+ per barrel we have seen during the last couple of years. And of course Carbon neutral.

The technology, dubbed as Helioculture, is based on genetically engineered algae that use photosynthesis as its energy-source. The process of photosynthesis will in esscence operate as normal, but instead of having sugar as its end product, the algae can be programmed to secrete biofuel. If this technology is made available, it could start to offer locally produced fuels in sun-rich locations, hopefully in the near future.

The key is to control the electron and its path in the biological system. Following the photoelectric effect discovered by Einstein in the early 20th century, photons from the sun will give off its energy to electrons when it hits them. Scientists have known for a long time that photosynthesis has the ability to capture solar energy at unprecedented efficency, but they had problems figuring out how. It`s not until the last few decades, when Quantum Physics appeared on the turf of bio-tech that a solution has emerged, explaining why the electrons in the plant have the ability to receive and transform solar energy so efficient.

Imagine the algae as containing vast amounts of little jiggling bouncy-balls of matter (electrons) . When photons from the sun hit the leafs, these balls start jiggling more and more. And the algae gets energy to convert CO2 and water into storable energy (bio-fuel) that we can fill in our cars. To produce the fuel, the algae has chemical factories in them.

The conundrum was how the plants transported the energy from the jiggling bouncy-balls to these chemical factories without almost any loss of energy.

The electrons in the algae can be imagined as incredibly long rows of particles. When an electron is hit by a photon and receive a quantum of energy, it has to nudge the whole row of electrons to send it`s energy to the chemical factory within the algea, as if the electrons were parts in an Abakus. Trouble is that there is trillions of trillions of photons hitting the electrons in the Abakus at the same time, so it is not easy to find a path into the chemical factory that is not obstructed by electrons moving some other way. Nature however, has solved the problem more cleverly than anyone could imagine.

One of the weird properties of Quantum Physics is a phenomena called Superpositionn. As a result the electron can “test” many different paths of energy-transfer at the same time, choosing the most efficient way through the giant Abakus. In classical science numbers like that is unheard of. In comparison, the most advanced commercial solar panels can use about 20% of the available energy.

Similar projects are currently being tested for the purpose of producing all kinds other organic compounds, with the sun as the working engine. It seems that in spite of all our advanced technologies. Nature in it`s simplicity, is still teaching us lessons.

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  1. The quantum superposition is… weird.
    But then again, all of quantum physics is essentially weird =)

    But the concept of getting fuel by helioculture is interesting. Its nice to know we don’t have to panic when fossil fuels run in short supply.

    • The quantum world is really really weird in principle, but when the essence of Special Relativity sinks in, and one realizes that Matter, energy and time are just different manifestations of the same thing. The possibilities seem to stretch a little bit, and I think`s kinda alright that there are still are deep and weird mysteries left in the world.

      “It`s not complicated, there is just a lot of it!”
      -Richard P. Feynman-

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