Comparing photosynthetic and photovoltaic efficiencies is not a simple issue. Although both processes harvest the energy in sunlight, they operate in distinctly different ways and produce different types of products: biomass or chemical fuels in the case of natural photosynthesis and nonstored electrical current in the case of photovoltaics. In order to find common ground for evaluating energy-conversion efficiency, we compare natural photosynthesis with present technologies for photovoltaic-driven electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen. Photovoltaic-driven electrolysis is the more efficient process when measured on an annual basis, yet short-term yields for photosynthetic conversion under optimal conditions come within a factor of 2 or 3 of the photovoltaic benchmark. We consider opportunities in which the frontiers of synthetic biology might be used to enhance natural photosynthesis for improved solar energy conversion efficiency.
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