U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


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Agricultural Research Magazine 60(1): January 2012 pp. 7; ISSN 0002-161X


When it comes to using light energy, how do manmade photo cells compare to plants’ photosynthesis? An Agricultural Research Service scientist participated in a study comparing how efficiently plants and photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into energy. The study, published in Science, could help researchers improve plant photosynthesis—a critical first link in the global supply chain for food, feed, fiber, and bioenergy production.

Comparing the two systems is a challenge. Although both processes harvest energy from sunlight, they use that energy in different ways. Plants convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy, whereas solar cells produce electricity.

Scientists know that plants are not as efficient as manmade solar cells at converting light into energy, according to research leader Donald Ort in the ARS Global Change and Photosynthesis Research Unit in Urbana, Illinois. “But now we have a way of comparing the two systems more accurately,” he said. The study identified specific redesigns that hold excellent promise for improving efficiency.