In the beginning…

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We agreed to this summer internship without quite knowing what we were letting ourselves in for. Our team of enthusiastic physicists, chemists, biologists, and an engineer, met around a teapot to discuss what on earth we were trying to do: Build a robot to mimic the process of photosynthesis and explain the importance of this global phenomenon. This challenge seemed fine on paper, but first and foremost we had to all agree on what photosynthesis is. Most people are taught that carbon dioxide and water combine in the presence of light and chlorophyll to form oxygen and sugars… but this misses out the most interesting part of the story! Plants can split water into hydrogen and oxygen! The hydrogen ions enter an electron transport chain which produces ATP (the energy currency for life), and it is this process which combines carbon dioxide with sugars. Oxygen is a mere by-product which allows us to breathe, and we use the sugars for food and fuel.

Inventive demonstrations will be associated with RoboPlant to represent each stage of photosynthesis in a memorable way. Our first task as a team of fresh-faced undergraduates was to go to Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham to get some ideas. We roamed around the exhibits on air, fire, earth and water, and all became a bit obsessed with neon ‘plasma globes’ showing electricity (which we are hoping to integrate into our plant design) and a huge fire tornado (which probably won’t make the final cut). It was useful seeing what the school children were most excited about – fire, explosions, and playing with water. We are aiming to incorporate as much of this as possible!

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Back to the drawing board… with the help of architect Prue Chiles, we drew up a variety of plant/leaf shapes and learned more about designing. This was useful later when listing everything we wanted the plant to be able to do – show the capture of light energy and conversion into electricity, show the splitting of water and the consequent production of oxygen and hydrogen, show the movement of leaves towards light, collect and display data on the efficiency of light conversion and the rate of gas production, speak, be portable, be interactive, function both outside and inside, be big and enticing to all age groups. Conversations with Colin’s lab group, other scientists and friends have helped to refine our current design, and we are now concentrating on the practical aspects. How do we get all the electronics and engineering sound and reliable, and the plant as biologically representative of photosynthesis as possible, in a dramatic jack-in-the-beanstalk style plant?

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A week later, we are still grasping the complexity of the design process, the feats of engineering needed and safety issues we need to address. We hope you enjoy this blog documenting the process from design, to prototype, to construction, to the Big Reveal in December 2013. Expect the trials and tribulations of a biologist grappling with quantum physics, the highs of a maths-loving physicist, a chemist tackling the dangers of gas bags, an engineer making a solar tracker from YouTube, a science communication enthusiast exploding jelly babies, and the constant fluctuation between idealism and realism of such a huge project…

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