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March 18, 2015

Peering into the mechanics of photosynthesis (Image 1)

The sun shines through the leaves close to sunset.

Biophysics researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) used short pulses of light to peer into the mechanics of photosynthesis and illuminate the role that molecule vibrations play in the energy conversion process that powers life on Earth. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants and some bacteria turn sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into food for themselves and oxygen for animals to breathe.

The U-M researchers identified specific molecular vibrations that help enable charge separation--the process of kicking electrons free from atoms in the initial steps of photosynthesis that ultimately converts solar energy into chemical energy for plants to grow and thrive. It takes about one-third of a second to blink your eye. Charge separation happens in roughly one-hundredth of a billionth of that amount of time.

Jennifer Ogilvie, an associate professor of physics and biophysics at U-M and lead author of a paper on these findings, and her research group developed an ultrafast laser pulse experiment that can match the speed of these reactions. By using carefully timed sequences of ultrashort laser pulses, the researchers were able to initiate photosynthesis and then take snapshots of the process in real time.

Findings from this research--supported in part by the National Science Foundation (CAREER award PHY 07-48470)--could potentially help engineers make more efficient solar cells and energy storage systems.

To learn more, see the U-M news story Deep within spinach leaves, vibrations enhance efficiency of photosynthesis. (Date of Image: July 2014) [Image 1 of 2 related images. See Image 2.]


Credit: Marcin Szczepanski, University of Michigan

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