While solar-energy systems work moderately well in hot desert climates, they are still inefficient and contribute only a small percentage to the general energy demand. A new solution may be coming from an unexpected source: the common pea.

“Looking at the most complicated membrane structure found in a plant, we deciphered a complex membrane protein structure, which is the core of our new proposed model for developing ‘green’ energy,” said Nathan Nelson, professor and structural biologist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Biochemistry. Isolating the minute crystals of the PSI super complex from the pea plant, Nelson suggests these crystals can be illuminated and used as small battery chargers or form the core of more efficient man-made solar cells.

Nelson’s research concentrates the way nature positions molecules with precision. His research suggests that the positioning of the molecules in plants, such as peas, could be the key to photosynthesis and could, therefore, help optimize how we capture the sun’s energy.

To generate useful energy, plants have evolved very sophisticated “nano-machinery,” which operates with light as its energy source and is 100 percent efficient. Called the Photosystem I (PSI) complex, Nelson isolated this complex from pea leaves.

“My research aims to come close to achieving the energy production that plants can obtain when converting sun to sugars in their green leaves,” Nelson said. “If we could come even close to how plants are manufacturing their sugar energy, we’d have a breakthrough.”