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Richard was led to a career in studying bacterial photosynthesis by a desire to learn and understand basic photosynthesis, he "wanted to know how natured worked."
In 1995, Richard's research group, in collaboration with others, used protein crystallography to determine the three dimensional structure of a light-harvesting complex from the purple bacterium, Rhodospsedomas acidophilia.
This breakthrough led to two key elements in the understanding of bacterial photosynthesis. One, once you have established the structure you can understand its function. Two, this view of a light-harvesting complex attracted an interdisciplinary group of scientists from the fields such as chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology.
Richard's current challenge is to take the process of photosynthesis (using solar energy to make a fuel) and apply it to the world's energy needs in a sustainable manner.
To do this, Richard says "you must break photosynthesis down to it's four most basics steps", absorb solar energy, concentrate it, break it apart and make a fuel. These are the steps that must be duplicated if they are going to be successful at creating sustainable, renewable energy.
The first two steps, says Cogdell, are like a solar battery (easy to recreate). The hard part is finding ways to use renewable energy to drive the chemistry. That's the process Richard spends most of his time working on and he uses the concept of an artificial leaf to help explain this complex process to the public.
According to Cogdell, if the current rate of investment continues, it will be approximately five to six years before we see a small pilot system that demonstrates the feasibility of the process.
Richard emphasizes that if mankind wants to survive, we must find a way to convert solar energy into fuel because when fossil fuels run out so do we.
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