Simple single-celled algae use highly sophisticated quantum physics to harvest and convert solar energy for their survival, a new study suggests.

The study, published in the prestigious science journal Nature, was by an international team of Canadian, Italian and Australian researchers, including two UNSW biophysicists - Professor Paul Curmi and Dr Krystyna Wilk.

It sheds new light on the process of photosynthesis used by green plants and algae to harvest energy from the sun. The findings may open up new avenues to develop organic solar cells and other electronic devices that emit or are initiated by light, such as lasers and visual displays.

The water-dwelling algae are in effect highly miniaturised quantum computers, the study suggests. They have mastered the process of photosynthesis so well that they can convert sunlight into electrical energy with near-perfect efficiency.

They do so by having their light-harvesting proteins "wired" together through a phenomenon known as quantum coherence, enabling them to transfer energy from one protein to another with lightning-fast speed and so reduce energy loss along the energy conversion pathway.

The study is part of a larger, ongoing collaboration between the biophysics lab at the UNSW School of Physics, the Centre for Applied Medical Research, St Vincent's Hospital Sydney, and the University of Toronto.

"We are working on understanding how a group of single-celled algae can thrive under low light conditions in marine and freshwater habitats,' Professor Curmi said.

"To do this, they must be incredibly efficient in capturing all solar energy and converting it to chemical energy via photosynthesis. They cannot afford to let any solar energy escape, so they have evolved elaborate antenna systems that trap light."

Media contact: Bob Beale | 0411 705 435 |