The World’s Most Incredible Invention

By Shlomo Maital   


Thanks to an outstanding BBC World Service program, “Discovery”, I have new appreciation for what must be the greatest invention ever:  Nature’s invention of photosynthesis, as a lucky accident through evolution.

   The word itself comes from two Greek roots meaning “light” (phos) and “putting together” (“synthesis”).  Plants use light energy from the sun, together with water and carbon dioxide, to produce two vital things:  carbohydrates, e.g. glucose, and oxygen.  The process is mediated and catalyzed by green chlorophyll.  What happens is:  six carbon dioxide molecules combine with six water molecules, using solar energy aided by chlorophyll, to make one glucose molecule and six oxygen molecules:

     6CO2 +    6H2O  =    C6H12O6 +   6O2  

     Photosynthesis does two things for life on earth: It provides all the organic compounds, and most of the food energy needed for life,   and it maintains atmospheric oxygen levels.  

   The rate at which photosynthesis captures solar energy is incredible:  130 terawatts, which is six times greater than the total power consumption of the human race

   We humans are incredibly arrogant.  But to date, we have nothing that comes close to photosynthesis, as a way of capturing solar energy and storing it as food energy.  Photovoltaic cells are a joke in comparison.  If we humans could store energy as plants can, we could produce power at night, when usage is nil, and use it during the day, thus almost halving our daytime production capacity.  But we can’t.  Only Nature can. 

   And just think – photosynthesis originated as an accident of evolution, one that just happened to work nicely, and that made possible life on earth. 

   Now, THAT’s an innovation!