This really isn’t as much of a stretch as it sounds. It’s just a matter connecting the dots in ways that might seem counterintuitive.
Start with algae – pond scum – and end with solar panels. In the middle is a series of connections made by researchers at Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW) that demonstrates how algae, which rely on sunlight to achieve photosynthesis, are able to survive in low-light environments.
The algae do it through what’s known as quantum coherence, according to a UNSW paper published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And they conclude that if algae can absorb sunlight in a dark pond, so can man-made organic solar cells.
The UNSW team’s work is part of a new branch of science called quantum, or subatomic-scaled, biology, which has uncovered evidence that quantum phenomena can be found not only in a physics lab, but also in nature. For example, scientists are exploring whether birds’ use of the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate may be a quantum phenomenon.
UNSW physics Professor Paul Curmi, the senior author of the paper, said the focus of his study was the single-celled alga called a cryptophyte, which thrives on the floors of ponds, and even under thick ice, and therefore has little access to sunlight.
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What Curmi’s team found was that some of these cryptophytes use quantum coherence to harvest light for photosynthesis. In others, though, a genetic mutation in a light-harvesting protein causes the quantum coherence to be switched off. By studying this, researchers can determine more precisely the role that quantum coherence plays by comparing and contrasting algae with and without these proteins.
The paper notes that a coherent organic system – in which all quantum waves are moving in tandem – can exist in more than one state simultaneously. In cryptophytes, Curmi says, such simultaneous multiple states increases the organism’s options for channeling light, even very dim light, to photosynthesis centers, and doing it quickly.
“It was [previously] assumed the energy gets to the reaction [center] in a random fashion, like a drunk staggering home,” Curmi says. “But quantum coherence would allow the energy to test every possible pathway simultaneously before traveling via the quickest route.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com