What if I told you that you were solar-powered?

RoboPlant will have its debut at the Sheffield University Schools Christmastime Lecture in December 2013. One thousand 10 year old children come to the university for an interactive lecture by a professor, followed by further up-close demonstrations by university students. You can read about previous lectures here and here.

James wrote the following piece to explain the process and importance of photosynthesis to 10 year olds…

What if I told you that you were solar-powered?

Have you ever wondered just what keeps life going? Where does everything get its energy? It may surprise you, but most of life on earth is actually solar-powered. You’ve probably seen solar panels before – your school calculator, for instance, may have a very small one. These contain photovoltaic cells (PVCs) which convert the energy from sunlight into electricity. The first PVC was built by the French scientist Becquerel in 1839 (in his dad’s laboratory, when he was 18!), after observing that certain materials can generate electricity when exposed to light. But Becquerel had already been beaten to his invention, by quite a long way. Life, it seemed, had already been using solar power for more than 2.5 billion years!

Plants use solar power in a process called photosynthesis. Inside the tiny cells that make up a leaf are ‘living’ solar panels called chloroplasts. These contain a green substance called chlorophyll, which sucks-up energy from sunlight (and also gives plants their colour!). Then, in a series of chemical reactions, this energy is used to make sugars out of water and carbon dioxide gas, releasing oxygen as a waste product. An average leaf contains around half a million chloroplasts per square millimetre, so just think how many of these little solar panels are hard at work making sugars and pumping out oxygen in your local park right now! Chloroplasts are far older than the plants themselves, having evolved from bacteria which lived in the oceans 2.5 billion years ago, and whose relatives are still around today.

What’s so important about photosynthesis? Well, without it, you wouldn’t be reading this now! The sugars made using photosynthesis provide the energy in your food, and the oxygen it releases is what lets you breathe. It doesn’t end there – loads of other stuff we use every day, like paper, couldn’t be made without it. We’re not the only ones, either – 99.9% of life on earth depends on photosynthesis for its existence. What’s more, the process is so complex that today’s scientists – tried as they have – are unable to replicate photosynthesis artificially. We have a pretty firm understanding of how plants convert sunlight into chemical energy, but we simply can’t do it ourselves, even with the most high-tech machinery.

Project ‘Roboplant’ is our attempt at the next best thing – a mechanical plant which splits water using solar power, and does a ton of other cool stuff as well!


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