Alumnus Draws Energy from Photosynthesis Research

Every leaf on that maple tree growing like gangbusters in your front yard is actually letting a tremendous amount of light (and sustenance) pass it by. And Professor Robert Blankenship (’70) of Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., is searching for ways to convince plants to begin tapping the sources of red and ultraviolet solar spectra.

Blankenship directs Washington University’s Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC), which recently received a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy as one of its Energy Frontier Research Centers. He returned to Nebraska Wesleyan University in April to lecture to science students.

“About half of the energy in sunlight is outside the visible range,” Blankenship told Washington University’s Washington magazine. “We are trying to incorporate new kinds of chlorophylls that can expand a plant’s range and thus get additional energy, but right now no plant can take advantage of that.”

Clear that hurdle, and PARC will have “the freedom to change things in major ways to explore areas that Mother Nature never did,” Blankenship said. “We want to see if we can come up with something more efficient than found in any natural system.”

Breakthroughs could find applications well beyond the maple in your yard. It could advance agriculture, solar energy and green chemical manufacturing.