He wants to reveal the secrets of photosynthesis – University of Copenhagen

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21 February 2014

He wants to reveal the secrets of photosynthesis

Green and sustainable chemistry

Mother Nature is much more skilled than we humans at exploiting the rays from the sun and we do not know exactly how she does it. Associate professor at the Department of Chemistry, Thorsten Hansen wants to reveal her secrets as that might open new opportunities for using solar energy. Hansen has just received a 10 million DKK Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship for the furthering of his research.

Understanding the processes of plant photosynthesis could help us build solar cells that are a lot better than the ones available to us today. Thorsten Hansen is a theoretical researcher working in the borderland between chemistry and physics. He wants to map out how electrons behave in plant proteins.

"Nature is capable of some pretty wild stuff. Despite the fact that we are now in 2014 we just cannot copy the processes that go on when plants transform sunlight into chemical energy!

Thorsten Hansen

Associate Professor

Dept. of Chemistry

University of Copenhagen

-Nature is capable of some pretty wild stuff. Despite the fact that we are now in 2014 we just cannot copy the processes that go on when plants transform sunlight into chemical energy. In order to figure out what exactly the plants do, we need to take a close look at the proteins involved in photosynthesis. That’s where things are happening, Says newly minted Lundbeck Foundation Fellow Thorsten Hansen.

Need to learn from nature

If you magnify to the molecular level what gives color to green plants are the megaproteins photosystem I and II. Thorsten Hansen plans to dig even deeper into the part of photosystem II known as the oxygen developing complex. This is where plants produce oxygen for our atmosphere using the power from the sun. And ther is plenty of power.

-The effect absorbed by plants from the sun comes to about 90 Terawatt. The energy use of the entire human race comes to about 14 Terawatt. So we would really like to know why plants are so good at transforming sunlight into storable energy, explains Thorsten Hansen.

Writing a quantum mechanical script

Using his background in chemistry and physics Hansen hopes to contribute the theories to underpin the experiments necessary for revealing the details of photosynthesis. He compares the task to a filmmaker going from still pictures to movies. Right now the researchers have a pretty good image of the proteins as they look at rest but very little is known about what happens when one adds motion.

-You cannot just jump from still photos to film so my job is to give input about how to “roll the tape”. You could say that we have built the stage, the actors have been cast and we know their characters but we have no script for the movie. In reality I need to create quantum mechanical equations that take the place of a script in these experiments, says Hansen.

Next step will be to test Hansens script in quite advanced experiments with lazers.

-If these theoretical data that I have simulated at some point fit the data from the experiments I would be confident to say, that we are pretty close to understanding what goes on in plant proteins, says Hansen.

Key to future solar cells

The best solar panels available today are so inefficient that a country like Denmark would need an area approaching the amount of tarmacked road in order to cover its energy needs. So there’s a pressing need for cheap and efficient solar cells. These might be built from plastics and the research into this field is intense. In Denmark and in the world.