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Scientists find surprising link between photosynthesis and strange state of physics

by News Staff
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Scientists inside a laboratory have observed a peculiar state that occurs when they cool down atoms close to absolute zero, while outside their window, trees absorb sunlight and produce new leaves. Although they appear unrelated, a recent study from the University of Chicago has discovered atomic-level connections between exciton condensates, a curious state of physics that enables frictionless energy flow through a material, and photosynthesis. This discovery is not only scientifically fascinating but could also lead to novel ways of designing electronics, according to the study’s authors.

One of the study’s co-authors, Professor David Mazziotti, leads a lab that specializes in modeling intricate atom and molecule interactions that give rise to interesting properties. These interactions cannot be observed with the naked eye, so computer simulations can offer insight into the reasons behind their behavior, as well as providing a foundation for future technology design.

Anna Schouten, LeeAnn Sager-Smith, and David Mazziotti have been using computer modeling to investigate the molecular-level processes involved in photosynthesis. When a photon from the sun strikes a leaf, it causes a change in a specialized molecule, freeing an electron. This electron and the resulting hole can move throughout the leaf, transporting the sun’s energy to trigger chemical reactions that produce sugars for the plant.

These mobile electron-and-hole pairs are known as excitons. The researchers discovered an unusual pattern in the movement of multiple excitons that resembled the behavior of a Bose-Einstein condensate, also known as “the fifth state of matter.” In this state, excitons can join together into the same quantum state, allowing energy to move through the material without any resistance. This type of peculiar behavior is of great interest to scientists because it can inspire innovative technologies, such as superconductivity, which underpins MRI machines.

The computer models created by Schouten, Sager-Smith, and Mazziotti revealed that the behavior of excitons in a leaf sometimes resembles that of an exciton condensate. This was a surprising discovery because exciton condensates have only been observed at extremely low temperatures. It’s like seeing ice cubes form in a hot cup of coffee.

Schouten explained that photosynthetic light harvesting occurs at room temperature and in a disordered structure, unlike the cold and pristine crystallized materials used to make exciton condensates.

The effect is not complete; instead, “islands” of condensates form, which can enhance energy transfer and increase efficiency by up to double, according to the scientists.

Mazziotti believes that this finding offers new possibilities for developing synthetic materials for future technology. Although creating an ideal exciton condensate is sensitive and requires specific conditions, it’s exciting to see an increase in efficiency in ambient conditions.

Moreover, this discovery aligns with the team’s broader approach of retaining some of the complexities in their models, which are usually simplified due to the difficulty of simulating the intricate interactions between atoms and molecules involved in processes like photosynthesis. Mazziotti believes that local electron correlation is critical for understanding how nature works.

Source: University of Chicago

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