Quantum Physics in a Leaf? Scientists Discover Link Between Photosynthesis and the “Fifth State of Matter”

by Klaus Müller
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photosynthesis-exciton link

Scientists have made an intriguing discovery linking natural photosynthesis to exciton condensates, a frictionless energy state typically observed at extremely low temperatures. This finding, published in the journal PRX Energy by researchers from the University of Chicago, sheds light on potential improvements in technology design, including the possibility of doubling energy efficiency.

The study reveals unexpected connections at the atomic level between photosynthesis and exciton condensates, which allow energy to flow smoothly through a material. While these two processes may initially seem unrelated, the researchers propose that they share common characteristics. Professor David Mazziotti, co-author of the study, describes this connection as compelling and exciting.

Mazziotti’s laboratory specializes in modeling the complex interactions of atoms and molecules to better understand their intriguing properties. By using computer modeling, scientists can gain insight into the underlying reasons for these behaviors and lay the groundwork for future technological advancements.

In their research, Mazziotti and his colleagues, Anna Schouten and LeeAnn Sager-Smith, focused on modeling the molecular-level events during photosynthesis. When sunlight strikes a leaf, a specially designed molecule absorbs a photon, releasing an electron and creating a “hole.” These electron-hole pairs, known as excitons, can move through the leaf, carrying solar energy to trigger chemical reactions that produce sugars for the plant.

During their modeling, the team noticed peculiar patterns in the paths of the excitons. These patterns resembled the behavior observed in a material known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, also referred to as the “fifth state of matter.” In such materials, excitons can combine into the same quantum state, enabling energy to propagate with zero friction. This peculiar behavior has intrigued scientists and has led to remarkable technological applications, such as superconductivity, which is the basis for MRI machines.

To their surprise, Schouten, Sager-Smith, and Mazziotti found that excitons in leaves can exhibit behavior similar to that of exciton condensates. This revelation was significant because exciton condensates had only been observed at extremely low temperatures, unlike the room temperature conditions found in photosynthesis. The researchers compare this discovery to witnessing ice cubes form in a cup of hot coffee.

Although the effect of exciton condensation in leaves is not widespread, it appears to occur in isolated “islands.” Nevertheless, even these islands can significantly enhance energy transfer, potentially doubling the efficiency of the process, according to the researchers’ models.

This newfound connection between photosynthesis and exciton condensation opens up possibilities for developing synthetic materials for future technologies. Mazziotti notes that while achieving a perfect exciton condensate is challenging and requires specific conditions, the ability to boost efficiency under ambient conditions is promising.

Furthermore, Mazziotti and his team have been pursuing a broader approach over the past decade. They believe that retaining certain aspects of the complex interactions between atoms and molecules is crucial to capturing the true workings of nature. Traditional models have often simplified these interactions due to their complexity, but Mazziotti argues for their inclusion in order to obtain a comprehensive understanding.

This study, titled “Exciton-Condensate-Like Amplification of Energy Transport in Light Harvesting,” was authored by Anna O. Schouten, LeeAnn M. Sager-Smith, and David A. Mazziotti and was published on April 28, 2023, in PRX Energy (DOI: 10.1103/PRXEnergy.2.023002).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about photosynthesis-exciton link

What did the scientists discover in their study?

The scientists discovered a link between photosynthesis and exciton condensates, a frictionless energy state observed at low temperatures. This link could potentially double energy efficiency.

How did they establish the connection between photosynthesis and exciton condensates?

Through atomic-level modeling, the researchers observed similarities between the behavior of excitons in photosynthesis and exciton condensates. These similarities indicated a connection between the two processes.

What are excitons?

Excitons are electron-hole pairs that form when a photon from sunlight strikes a leaf during photosynthesis. They can move through the leaf, carrying solar energy for chemical reactions.

What is exciton condensate?

Exciton condensate is a state of matter where excitons link up into the same quantum state, allowing energy to flow without friction through a material. It is often observed at extremely low temperatures.

How could this discovery impact technology design?

The discovery of the link between photosynthesis and exciton condensates opens up possibilities for improving technology design. It may lead to the development of synthetic materials that enhance energy efficiency in future technologies.

What is the significance of exciton condensation occurring in leaves?

The presence of exciton condensation in leaves, even in isolated “islands,” can significantly enhance energy transfer during photosynthesis. It has the potential to double the efficiency of the process.

What is the broader approach the researchers have been pursuing?

The researchers argue for including the complex interactions between atoms and molecules in their models to better understand the workings of nature. This comprehensive approach provides insights for future scientific exploration.

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