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Quantum Physics Meets Genetic Engineering as MIT Scientists Create Energy Transport

First Posted: Oct 15, 2015 03:28 PM EDT
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Quantum physics, meet genetic engineering.  Scientists have used engineered viruses in order to provide quantum-based enhancement of energy transport. The new work points the way toward inexpensive and efficient solar cells or light-drive catalysis.

Nature has the ability of almost 100 percent solar efficiency. In other words, plants have the ability to transport the energy of sunlight from receptors to reaction centers where it can be harnessed. In the case of plants, it's harnessed for food; and its efficiency is far better than even the best solar cells.

One way plants achieve this efficiency, though, is by making use of the exotic effects of quantum mechanics, sometimes known as "quantum weirdness." These effects, which include the ability of a particle to exist in more than one place at a time, have now been used by researchers in this latest study.

In photosynthesis, a photon hits a receptor called a chromophore, which in turn produces an exciton, which is a quantum particle of energy. This exciton jumps from one chromophore to another until it reaches a reaction center, where the energy is harnessed to build molecules. Yet this hopping pathway is random and inefficient unless it takes advantage of quantum effects that allow it to essentially take multiple pathways at once.

In this latest study, the researchers used genetically engineered viruses. This virus was able to bond with multiple synthetic chromophores-organic dyes. The researchers produced many varieties of the virus and selected the one that worked the best.

In the end, the researchers were able to more than double excitons' speed, increasing the distance they traveled before dissipating. This is a significant improvement in the efficiency of the process. This proof of concept, in particular, could be huge for the creation of inexpensive and efficient solar cells.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Materials.

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