Researchers who met at a public discussion in Glasgow earlier this week talked about how understanding the fundamental processes that plants use to turn light into energy is a key way of securing cheap, emission-free energy in the future.

Scientists who took part in the event – organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) – say that furthering our understanding of photosynthesis ‘offers an innovative way of producing environmentally-friendly energy.’

Photosynthesis is the process that green plants and certain other organisms use sunlight as an energy source to synthesise food from carbon dioxide and water.

Sociology Professor Steve Yearley from the University of Edinburgh who took part in the public discussion said: “If carefully managed, biofuels could provide a partial solution to dwindling fossil-fuel supplies. However, the biofuels industry currently faces criticism for pushing up food prices and damaging sensitive ecosystems.

“Photosynthesis on the other hand, does not carry these risks. However, the development of any new technology can have far-reaching effects on society and it is important that we and the wider public assess what those might be at this early stage.”

Scientists also discussed how a better understanding of photosynthesis could lead to better crops for biofuels.

Professor Jim Barber of Imperial College London said that if we can understand how plants capture and store solar energy, we could mimic the natural process to design solar panels with better energy conversion rates and also develop a clean, efficient means of producing hydrogen fuel.

Professor Barber said: “Plants use solar energy to split water into oxygen, released as ‘waste’, and hydrogen which they use to help build sugars that feed the plant.

“We do not fully understand how photosynthesis works, but recent key advances in plant research mean that the time is right to consider this science as a basis for future sustainable energy sourcing.”

Dana Gornitzki

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