Most basic chemical steps in this construction-process are well charted. But how energy itself is collected from sunlight and then transferred into new substances is less clear. Sunlight is a dilute energy source.
This substance is the framework in leaves and stems where water and carbon dioxide are turned into life's building-blocks. It is outlined in school textbooks. Processes that construct natural materials require energy. Here it comes from sunlight in the process of photosynthesis.
Consequently, in nature, collecting and transferring its energy is a slow process even on a bright summer day.
Photosynthesis is an ancient process evolving very early in the development of life on Earth, hence it is also rather sedate. Much of it is also very similar, conserved, across plant types from marine algae to forest trees.
Artificially increasing the efficiency of light-harvesting from sunlight is one of science’s major prizes. It is as important as finding cures for cancers and other human diseases. This is a route towards much increased food supplies and better nutritional qualities. This task needs teams of biologists, chemists and particularly physicists — the latter because light is a curious entity that perplexed even great physicists such as Einstein.
China is an international leader in this research — hardly surprising since China urgently needs increased food supplies. Britain should be concerned by their single-minded approach, resulting in high-quality, internationally recognised science.
Recent publications from Beijing show how light-harvesting is regulated and its packets of energy are moved in plant cells. China is deploying money and people for science that will result in practical technologies. Without similar commitment we will eventually buy their technologies for use in our crops and gardens.
Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international