Humans can do lots of things that plants can’t do. We can walk around, we can talk, we can hear and see and touch. But plants have one major advantage over humans: They can make energy directly from the sun.

Yulia Pushkar in lab.

That process of turning sunlight directly into usable energy – called photosynthesis – may soon be a feat humans are able to mimic to harness the sun’s energy for clean, storable, efficient fuel. If so, it could open a whole new frontier of clean energy. Enough energy hits the earth in the form of sunlight in one hour to meet all human civilization’s energy needs for an entire year.

Yulia Puskhar, a biophysicist and professor of physics in Purdue’s College of Science, may have a way to harness that energy by mimicking plants.

Wind power and solar power, harnessed by photovoltaic cells, are the two major forms of clean energy available. Adding a third — synthetic photosynthesis — would dramatically change the renewable energy landscape. The ability to store the energy easily, without requiring bulky batteries, would dramatically improve humans’ ability to power society cleanly and efficiently.

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