Tel Aviv University biologists say a solution to our search for alternative energy may come from an unexpected source ―  peas.

Researchers isolating minute crystals of the PSI super complex from the pea plant suggests these crystals can be illuminated and used as small battery chargers or form the core of more efficient man-made solar cells.

To generate useful energy, plants have evolved very sophisticated "nano-machinery" which operates with light as its energy source and gives a perfect quantum yield of 100%. Called the Photosystem I (PSI) complex, this complex was isolated from pea leaves and crystallized, which enabled researchers to describe in detail its intricate structure.

Described in 1905 by Albert Einstein, quantum physics and photons explained the basic principles of how light energy works. Once light is absorbed in plant leaves, it energizes an electron which is subsequently used to support a biochemical reaction, like sugar production.

"If we could come even close to how plants are manufacturing their sugar energy, we'd have a breakthrough. It's therefore important to solve the structure of this nano-machine to understand its function," says Prof. Nelson, a structural biologist at Tel Aviv University.

Since the PSI reaction center is a pigment-protein complex responsible for the photosynthetic conversion of light energy to another form of energy like chemical energy, these reaction centers, thousands of which are precisely packed in the crystals, may be used to convert light energy to electricity and serve as electronic components in a variety of different devices.

"One can imagine our amazement and joy when, upon illumination of those crystals placed on gold covered plates, we were able to generate a voltage of 10 volts. This won't solve our world's energy problem, but this could be assembled in power switches for low-power solar needs, for example," Nelson concludes.