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Question Your World: Could Humans Use Photosynthesis?

The race for the most efficient way to power our planet is happening right now. There are many options ranging from wind to nuclear to hydro power. Sometimes science has to turn to nature for inspiration, after all trees have been using solar energy to survive for millions upon millions of years. Could humans use photosynthesis to power our lives? Learn more in this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia.

Nature has inspired some of the most remarkable technology. For example the design of birds was very important to putting together the first functional planes. The human eye was the blue print for camera technologies old and new. Some could even easily say the light bulb itself is a miniature controllable sun. There are many examples of how nature has directly inspired us to develop not only a new innovations but also new industries. One of the biggest industries in the spotlight right now pertains to energy. Wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro-power are clear examples of how nature has inspired the development of those technologies, but it doesn’t stop there.

Recently some scientists at Washington University in St. Louis have taken inspiration from the largest naturally occurring solar panels on the planet, trees. Trees have survived for millions of years using the soil, water, and that wonderful energy producing process, photosynthesis. So, is it possible for humans to harness this as a means of producing power? Well, our cells are not designed to do that type of work per say so we will have to think of external ways of harboring the sun's power. Trees, however, are totally designed to use sun light to power their lives. As great and easy as this seems trees can only process about 3 to 6% of the sunlight's energy. There are many different types of wavelengths that the sun beams down that trees can’t seem to access. This is where some creative thinking comes in, half natural and half synthetic pigments. The natural ones allow for the tree's functional photosynthesis to take place while the synthetic pigments work capturing the various wavelengths that the tree can’t capture on its own. The energy captured from this could then be distributed to power our day to day lives without damaging the tree. 

This light harvesting antenna is still very much so in early developmental stages, but shows once again how inspiration from nature can open up some pretty amazing doors in the field of science. Imagine if our power were to come directly from the trees that surround our communities, a world of power plants. Pretty cool stuff!

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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