Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Artificial Photosynthesis

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Popular Science Monthly. Some rights reserved.

It took a few episodes to really get me on board, but I think at this point it’s safe to say that I’ve been enjoying Fox’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s PBS science-series Cosmos (airing Sundays and hosted by Sagan-worshipper and all-around-cool-guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson). There’s no way Tyson could ever hope to replicate what Sagan did with the original series, and I think he’s done a good job so far of updating the feel of the show for the current era (cheesy effects and all) and finding new topics to explore. If I was a kid watching it, I think there’s a very good change I’d be having my mind blown every week and learning all sorts of stuff in the process, and that’s ultimately the best thing that can be said about a show like this.

This Sunday’s episode I found particularly enlightening, as it found Tyson piloting his magical future-spaceship into a dewdrop to explore a concept I have never really full grasped: Photosynthesis. Sure, yes: I know that it’s the process through which plants convert sunlight into energy. But watching this segement felt like a sublime return to Freshman year Biology, re-introducing the concept through visual cues and functional metaphors that anyone could understand. I won’t do you, dear reader, the disservice of re-hashing Tyson’s elegant explanation. Instead, I’d like to focus on how he took the concept one step further. As Tyson explains in his intro, if we can learn the “trade secrets” of how chloroplasts manufacture and store energy, we can change the future of energy for our species. To quote Tyson directly:

We understand on a chemical level how photosynthesis works, we can recreate the process in a laboratory. But we’re not as good at it as plants are, and its not surprising considering nature’s been at this for billions of years and we’ve only just started. But if we could figure out the trade secrets of photosynthesis? Every other source of energy we depend on today – coal, oil, natural gas – would become obsolete. Photosynthesis is the ultimate green power. It doesn’t pollute the air,  and is in fact carbon neutral. Artificial photosynthesis, on a big enough scale, could reduce the greenhouse effect that’s  driving climate change in a dangerous direction.

This is a concept I’m entirely unfamiliar with, even as I read week in and week out about alternative energy solutions. Of course, at this point we don’t have the technology or the method with which to implement “artificial photosynthesis” as a viable energy source – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. HowStuffWorks has a nice breakdown of the efforts so far to harness this kind of energy, what it would require (beginning with a catalyst, something to interact with the provided sunlight to induce a chemical reaction), and what kind of useful outputs we could expect. Meanwhile, research continues at the California Institute of Technology’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis forges ahead, and their website has all sorts of useful and detailed information on what kind of work they’re doing to make Tyson’s dream a reality.


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