The Photosynthetic Antenna - a moonshot project
Tom Spendlove posted on July 28, 2014 |

Dewey Holten has an ambitious goal - he wants to capture light energy using the process of photosynthesis and efficiently deliver it to a solar energy application. Holten is the Associate Director of PARC, the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center, at Washington University in St. Louis.

A promotional video on the PARC website says that 8% of the energy consumed on the earth is renewable, and just 1% of the renewable energy is solar. Using the process of photosynthesis to transform light, water and carbon dioxide into chemical energy the researchers hope to generate several types of energy.

The video tells us that worldwide photosynthesis produces 100 TeraWatts, while worldwide consumption sits at 16 TeraWatts. Researchers at PARC are working to take advantage of this clean, abundant, and renewable energy source.

PARC is a group of eleven universities and national laboratories studying photosynthetic antenna systems. The systems are the light-gathering components of organisms. Bob Blankenship, PARC Director, knows that photosynthetic antenna research is at the very beginning of its timeline - there is a great deal of research, application and widespread use ahead.

Research is split into three themes, each with its own team and mission. Theme 1 focuses on Natural Antennas: Structure and Efficiency. The team studies the different mechanisms existing in nature right now. They also study the effects of scaling the systems up or down, and the effects that making modifications to the processes will have on the energy output.

Theme 2 is Biohybrid Antenna: Organization and Implementation. The main focus is taking synthetic molecules and grafting them onto biological proteins. Ideally the researchers will add chemistry advances to biological processes and surpass nature.

The third theme is Bioinspired Antennas: Design and Characterization. Synthetic peptide assemblies are built into antenna complexes and optimized to deliver energy efficiently. Most of this work is done in the Lindsey Lab at NC State University.

In early July 2014 the Department of Energy awarded PARC funding for four more years of research. This was the second round of funding for Energy Frontier Research Centers and 5,400 peer-reviewed scientific publications have been generated by the thirty two projects.

PARC is doing incredible work, and the amount of scientists, engineers, technicians and students putting their effort into the task is staggering. The end products of this research probably won't be realized for decades but the potential to change the way we generate and use energy is huge.

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