Canada-Led Biotechnology Panel Aims to Get to the Root of Zero-emissions Solar

Leaves Backlit by Sunset

By Arman Kazemi

October 16, 2014

In a very essential way, all energy sources, including oil, are solar.

As a recent article in the Scotland Herald put it, plankton and other tiny sea creatures thrived thanks to the action of the sun, and were subsequently crushed into the dense film that today runs our cars and setsour airplanes aloft.

The process of creating oil took millions of years, the article explains, but it’s taking us only a few centuries to exhaust this most inefficient of solar energies.

The evolution of manmade energy sources has evolved as increasingly close approximations of the processes by which sunlight is converted into usable energy forms. And with each technological leap, this approximation is becoming more and more accurate.

Hoping to produce the next ‘great leap’, a group of researchers wants to look forward to the next great frontier of solar energy. Hosted by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, world experts in the field of biotechnology gathered in an effort to get to the root of one of the most essential yet baffling forms of solar-to-carbon energy conversion: photosynthesis.

The researchers spent three days at the University of Toronto, motivated by the desire to better understand the physics behind how plants make food out of sunlight, which could in turn bring energy technologies exponentially closer to zero-emissions.

Yet, as Ivan Semeniuk of the Globe and Mail explains, even defining a roadmap towards the development of such technology is problematic.

“The challenge for researchers,” Semeiuk explains, “is that unlike conventional solar energy — which use a silicon based semiconductor to convert light into electricity — photosynthesis is exquisitely complex.” Scientists are only just starting to understand in a rudimentary way the molecular and atomic processes behind this conversion, Semeiuk says.

Developing a theory of artificial photosynthesis is one thing, but it becomes an entirely different set of propositions when the discussion turns toward implementing unproven technology in the energy economy of the near future.

“Silicon is really cheap,” AlánAspuru-Guzik, a theoretical chemist from Harvard who took part in last week’s talks, told the Globe. “[The new technologies] need to be cheaper and better to make a difference and help transform the economy into a renewable economy. “

Cambridge University’s Sir Richard Friend, one of the researchers trying to simulate photosynthesis in the lab, sums up the relationship between a plant’s supremely efficient internal technology and humans’ as yet rather faltering attempts to mimic it as “a performance gap” to the Toronto Star.

While it takes a year or two, according to Friend, for a silicon cell to make up for the energy deficit required for its manufacture and installation before it shows a net positive output, plants require a matter of months (about the time it takes to grow leaves) to put energy back into the bioorganic grid by growing new roots, flowers and fruit.

“In economic terms, says Friend, the plant’s capital investment is extremely low in relation to the energy produced.”