Hacking the Sun

While we here at Sunfind Solar are passionate about harnessing the power of the sun to create electricity, it’s not lost on us that all that solar power can be used for things other than providing power to our TV’s and keeping our fridges cool.

Geodesic dome greenhouse

The immediate steps we take to ‘hack the sun’ by installing solar modules on our homes and businesses is certainly not the limit. Many people are interested in taking it a step further by turning the sun’s energy not only into electricity, but also into food, medicine, recreation and relaxation. A great example of this can be found in The Food Garage Project where we have turned to the sun to fill all these rolls. And when the home-scale science experiments are done for the day there’s even a wood-fired hot tub waiting. All work and no relaxation makes for unhappy hackers!

While this approach may not solve the world’s food problems, it can certainly decrease our impact at the local level… all while working comfortably within natural limits.

Another very interesting solar development can be found in the world of large scale agriculture. We learned in school that every day the sun shines and plants grow through the process of photosynthesis. One thing photosynthetic plants have in common is they all need the sun, or light, to grow. While plants may receive the same general photons of light, not all plants use it in the same way. Some are more efficient and some less so, which has led scientists to identify an opportunity to improve the efficiency in these so-called, underperforming plants.

It’s called ‘hacking the sun’ - a scientific ambition to improve plant productivity and help meet the forecasted global need to increase food production by between 25 and 70 percent by 2050. Plant biochemist Amanda Cavanaugh, who worked on the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), notes, “Improving crop yields to grow more food on less land is not a new challenge. But as the global population grows and diets change, the issue is becoming more urgent.”

Inside the leaves of most plants is an enzyme called Rubisco, which is shorthand for a longer, tongue-twisting chemical name. Rubisco is responsible for collecting carbon dioxide from the air and converting it into the sugars plants use to grow. The energy it needs to complete this process comes from the sun. However, Rubisco can sometimes also collect oxygen from the air and the result produces a natural toxin that the plant must then neutralize. The process of neutralization is called photorespiration, the downside of this process is that it uses considerable energy that could have otherwise been directed toward plant growth.

Some plants, bacteria and algae for example, have evolved systems to get around this energy loss and their ability to rapidly grow are well known. Unfortunately, not enough of them are included (or even edible!) in our daily diets.

If scientists are successful, this techno-innovation to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis could help address the ever-growing challenges presented by climate change on a growing global population. It may also support the transition that Canadian growers are making to produce warmer climate crops. However, the timeline to actual implementation - again, IF they are even successful - could take as long as ten years or more with costs in the range of US$150 million, according to Cavanaugh.

It’s exciting to see science taking cues from nature to innovate on a process that has evolved over millions and millions of years. The opportunities that emerge could truly change the world. And it’s equally exciting to know that as the world’s problems become increasingly complex, the alternate solutions remain particularly simple and may just be found in our own backyards.

Contributed by:

Rene Michalak, Sunfind Solar