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Power Plants Could One Day Be Plant-Powered
In what could one day change the definition of "power plant," researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have manipulated the photosynthetic process of plants in a way that may possibly enable the energy produced in the process to be harnessed for later use as electricity.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – and called a “must-read” by the Faculty of 1000 Biology service (comprised of more than 2300 of the world's leading scientists) – the achievement is a first step in a process that could some day create true green energy, or in the words of the Faculty of 1000, “the greenest of the green.”
The research team led by Prof. Gadi Schuster, dean of the Technion Faculty of Biology and Prof. Noam Adir from the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, studied a key protein in the process of moving electrons along the photosynthesis production line. In its natural state, this protein extracts electrons from water and moves them through a cell membrane in plants. The membrane then isolates the biological electricity flow from the escaping to side processes.
By altering one amino acid out of the hundreds found in the protein from positive to negative, the researchers changed the direction of electron emission to one allowing for harnessing the energy produced in the process for later use. This modified protein “exports” electrons at a high enough frequency to produce a useful quantity of energy. The positive to negative change does not harm the protein’s function or development of the plant, making it possible to obtain large amounts of protein at minimal cost.
The next step, say the researchers, is to engineer a mechanism that will be able to convert the biochemical energy into electricity, as used in everyday processes.
“This will not replace power stations,” says Prof. Schuster. “But in the future, it might supply useable amounts of clean electricity, especially in places with infrastructure problems that traditional electricity cannot reach. We hope to reach the stage in which a few leaves, for example – tobacco leaves – can supply electricity for a number of hours exactly like a photoelectric board.”
Technion graduate students Shirley Larom and Faris Salama also contributed to these research findings, for which the Technion has registered a patent.