Eighteen blue-ribbon scientists from all over the world agree: We need to improve on Mother Nature. Oh? Well, yes. Nature only extracts energy from the Sun in a couple of band gaps (otherwise known as colors), mostly green, some blue. We can do better than that. We can engineer plants to absorb photons from the Sun in lots of band gaps such as the reds, and purples, and even infra-red. That way, instead of letting all the good color wavelengths go to waste, we can have plant stock capturing far more energy.
The description above is a gross oversimplification, of course, but in essence this is what a joint paper published in the journal Science [03 May 2011, paywalled, Comparing Photosynthetic and Photovoltaic Efficiencies and Recognizing the Potential for Improvement] is saying. The target for this improvement on nature is biofuels.
The study itself compares the efficiencies of solar photovoltaic devices (solar panels, etc.) compared to photosynthesis and finds photosynthesis lacking. For evolutionary reasons, most photosynthesis occurs with the green and some blue portions of the spectrum. This is sufficient for the needs of plants and algae. It is not, however, good enough for human energy needs.
The solution, as these scientists propose, is to create hybrid organics (plants, algae) that can absorb photons (solar energy) in different colors and install them in tandem so that more of the Sun’s energy is captured simultaneously. Prototypes of this approach are already underway, but the techniques are difficult, essentially the building of plant material from scratch using synthetic biology and genetic manipulation. The results may be startling, with much darker plant colors and plant forms that may seem alien.
Keep in mind this paper is a proposal, an outline, of an approach that will involve a lot of new research. That means it will take years before tangible results are available. On the other hand, human beings have been modifying plant life for millennia. This is an accelerated process of modification. The fact that we may be building new plant life from scratch with basic organic building blocks may seem radical, and it is, but it’s hardly shocking. Presumably researchers will deal with ecological impact and other environmental issues if and when these synthetic plants are real and viable.