Spinach may have super strength to unlock some of the mysteries of biofuel production. Purdue University physicists are part of an international group using spinach to study the proteins involved in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert the sun’s energy into carbohydrates used to power cellular processes.
“The proteins we study are part of the most efficient system ever built, capable of converting the energy from the sun into chemical energy with an unrivaled 60 percent efficiency,” said Yulia Pushkar, a Purdue assistant professor of physics involved in the research. “Understanding this system is indispensable for alternative energy research aiming to create artificial photosynthesis.”
As Pushkar explains, during photosynthesis plants use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into hydrogen-storing carbohydrates and oxygen. Artificial photosynthesis could allow for the conversion of solar energy into renewable, environmentally friendly hydrogen-based fuels.
In Pushkar’s laboratory, students extract a protein complex called Photosystem II from spinach they buy at the supermarket. The students then extract the proteins in a specially built room that keeps the spinach samples cold and shielded from light. Next the team excites the proteins with a laser and records changes in the electron configuration of their molecules.
“These proteins require light to work, so the laser acts as the sun in this experiment,” explained Pushkar. “Once the proteins start working, we use advanced techniques like electron paramagnetic resonance and X-ray spectroscopy to observe how the electronic structure of the molecules change over time as they perform their functions.” Continue reading