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Golden Scholars: Berkeley Labs take "molecular snapshots" of photosynthesis and help speed up data transmission

All the latest news and research out of UC Berkeley, which may help in the development of clean energy and faster data transfer.

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Say Cheese

X-ray techniques in the Berkeley Lab may help get us one step closer to renewable and clean energy by "taking pictures" of the molecular processes in photosynthesis that use sunpower to split water, helping elucidate the process to make it easier for us to copy. Because why create something if you can just copy it from nature?

The key to this process (in plants at least) is a manganese-calcium metalloenzyme, but it typically breaks down when exposed to the radiation needed for x-ray crystallography and imaging. Thanks to the incredible resources at the Berkeley Lab and access to "the world's most powerful x-ray laser," researchers led by Vittal Yachandra and Junko Yano were able to do the impossible. Yachandra said:

"An effective method of solar-based water-splitting is essential for artificial photosynthesis to succeed but developing such a method has proven elusive... [W]e have gone around the four-step catalytic cycle of photosynthetic water oxidation in photosystem II. This represents a major advance towards the real time characterization of the formation of the oxygen molecule in photosystem II, and has yielded information that should prove useful for designing artificial solar-energy based devices to split water."

Pedal to the Metal/Mettle/Medal

With everyone so plugged-in these days, the demand for faster and faster data transfer is increasing and increasing and Berkeley researchers in Connie Chang-Hasnain's lab are doing their part to make sure the speed of data transmission keeps on speeding.

Chang-Hasnain presents the problem as follows:

"On any given integrated circuit now, the electrical power dedicated for communication is really high and bandwidth limited, especially for higher speed trunk lines," says Connie Chang-Hasnain, who leads the effort. Optical approaches such as lasers reduce power consumption and noise between components and increase speed, she says. "It's the difference between using a local roadway and a superhighway."

The solution is to fabricate microscopic nanoneedles out of silicon, which can then be doped with other materials to confer different properties. This is kind of a way to "power up" an already promising tool, kind of like adding a power/skill to a video game character. However, this was not an easy task, with two main challenges confronting the lab. Firstly, the additivewhich goes unnamed in this news articleand the silicon had compatibility issues with their crystal structure, which likely affected proper formation and function. In addition to that, the growth temperature used to create these crystals was significantly different than the temperature needed to integrate into circuits.

Chang-Hasnain thinks there are several potential applications in the future for this novel technology:

Chang-Hasnain notes that the growth process and use of silicon as a growth medium will make large-scale manufacturing possible when the nanoneedles are ready for commercial use. The strong investment by the electronics industry in a silicon foundry network will enable development of nanolasers for communications as well as other applications such as solar energy and sensing.

The author of the news story sees how this tool can be used to overcome data-transmission problems that hinder the development of "next-generation" devices, including futuristic prosthetic limbs.