"Leaves Can Supply Electricity": Technion researchers achieve breakthrough in creating biological energy

They made changes in natural photosynthesis system; the Technion has registered a patent on this and the scientific paper was recommended as a “must read” by a world organization of biology experts


Interdisciplinary cooperation at the Technion has produced the possibility of a breakthrough in the field of bio-energy. The Technion has registered a patent on this and the Technion researchers’ scientific paper was recommended as a “must read” by a well-known organization of senior biology researchers – Faculty of 1000/Biology – which said that “there is something new under the sun” and that the achievement is a first step towards creating true green energy, or in their words – “the greenest of the green.” The paper was published in - “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” – the prestigious journal of the US National Academy of Sciences.


The researchers – Faculty of Biology Dean, Prof. Gadi Schuster, and Prof. Noam Adir from the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, together with doctoral students Shirley Larom and Faris Salama – recorded an important achievement on the road to green energy. They succeeded in manipulating the photosynthesis process (the process by which plants absorb solar energy and convert it into efficient chemical energy) in such a way that it is possible to use it to produce electricity from plants. The Technion researchers studied a key protein in the process of moving electrons along the photosynthesis production line. In its natural state, the protein extracts electrons from water and moves them through a membrane in bacteria and plants. In nature, the membrane isolates the biological electricity flow from the escaping to side processes. The researchers changed one amino acid out of the hundreds found in the protein from a positive amino acid to a negative one and thus succeeded in changing the direction of electron emission to one that enables harnessing the energy produced in the process for later use.


The engineered protein also “exports” electrons at a high enough frequency to produce a useful quantity of energy, and directs the flow in a configuration that enables efficient absorption of this energy. And this was accomplished without the artificial change harming the functioning of the protein. This enables growing the organism in a completely natural way, thus enabling obtaining large amounts of protein at a very low price and without polluting industrial processes.


In the second stage, the Technion researchers looked for an electron-carrying protein that would absorb the electrons emitted and transfer them to an electric cell electrode. They found that a small protein called cytochrome C, which is produced from horse hearts, is the most compatible and best fulfills the function.


Going forward, the Technion researchers hope to engineer a real mechanism that will be able to convert the biochemical energy into electricity and hydrogen which are known to us from daily life. “This will not replace power stations,” they say. “But it could supply useable amounts of entirely clean electricity, especially in places with infrastructure problems which 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 of one square meter,” stress Prof. Adir and Prof. Schuster.

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