Scientists have discovered that some algae are capable of using quantum effects to optimize photosynthesis, a finding which they believe could lead to solar cells with near perfect efficiency.
According to io9, the observations show that much like a quantum computer, some algae are able to scan the full range of their options to choose the most efficient solution. In some plants and photosynthetic algae, this means deriving the maximum amount of energy from the light they are exposed to. The effect is referred to as quantum decoherence, and it allows certain plants to exist in low light environments, as they optimize the efficiency of their photosynthesis.
— SAGANet.org (@saganorg) July 12, 2014
From Quarks To Quasars reports that the algae discovered by scientists can turn their quantum coherence on and off, according to the study’s senior author, Professor Paul Curmi:
“Most cryptophytes have a light-harvesting system where quantum coherence is present. But we have found a class of cryptophytes where it is switched off because of a genetic mutation that alters the shape of a light-harvesting protein. This is a very exciting find. It means we will be able to uncover the role of quantum coherence in photosynthesis by comparing organisms with the two different types of proteins.”
The plants and algae in question are able to maximize their efficiency through the use of a protein that harvests light. Using quantum coherence, the algae is able to “capture energy that is able to simultaneously test every possible path to the reaction center,” and then determine the most effective of all possible paths for it to take.
— NetofEverything (@NetOfEverything) June 22, 2014
A quantum system is said to be coherent when all of the quantum waves in the system are in sync. In this effect, known as superposition, the system can exist in multiple states simultaneously. A single mutation in the light-harvesting protein allows the algae to achieve that state.
Recently, scientists have been forced to re-examine how organisms derive energy from their environment. As The Inquisitr has reported, a new strain of bacteria has also been discovered that uses pure electrons for sustenance. While the electric bacteria raised questions about the ability of life to exist in low-energy environments, quantum algae may shed new light on the same topic.
The next step for researchers is to determine how much the quantum effects are assisting in the organism’s survival. Scientific breakthroughs in quantum computers and efficient biological solar cells may come from further study of quantum algae.
[Image via From Quarks To Quasars]