2 Minutes with Gregory Scholes
March 26, 2013
The work of Professor Greg Scholes is showing that the answers may be all around us in nature. He has established himself as a leader in the field of energy transfer—the process whereby absorbed light is transferred from molecule to molecule.
Prof. Scholes, the 2012 recipient of the NSERC John C. Polanyi Award, has shown that quantum mechanical effects are involved in the capture and distribution of the sun's energy during photosynthesis. By demonstrating the connection between biology and quantum physics, his work raises significant questions on how far quantum laws reach and whether they influence complex living systems.
So we have all of these different colour algae growing here because we're interested in the natural diversity that we find which is the construction actually of the proteins that capture the sun's energy and that's reflected in the colour of the algae. So what you're seeing are those proteins. So what we want to do is isolate the proteins and study them with our very fast laser systems in these new experiments, in the experiments we're continually developing because we want to know are there different strategies for light, for the capture of energy used here? Are they simply different solutions to the problem that all work well or is there an optimization that's been going on?
What plants and algae do is they have to absorb sunlight and it's that energy that powers their—their solar cells. And you have to get that energy to the solar cell protein essentially in about 10 to the minus 9 seconds which is pretty fast. And it's in getting the energy efficiently to those solar cell proteins called reaction centres where quantum mechanics appears to play a role.
Nature has been working on this for 200 million years for these proteins, so have they discovered some secrets to success that would not be obvious to us?
NSERC has always been very good to me and that's—that's definitely made the difference.
I think the turning point was the Steacie Fellowship several years ago. That enabled us to set up these completely new kinds of experiments and it's those experiments that directly led to the discoveries that we're now looking at. At the time we were studying mainly plastics for applications in organic solar cells and these are semi conductors but they're made of plastic. And then we decided to study some of these proteins from algae and to our—it was a complete surprise that the post-doc who was a vetter that did this work, she found signatures in these new experiments we were doing and she found signatures in there that told us that molecules were interacting after we excited them with a laser in ways that classical physics couldn't explain.
What we can take from that, lessons on designing systems, chemical systems, material systems for harnessing the energy of sunlight and these could be for energy, they could be for new kinds of logic systems, sensors, other devices of this kind.