Comparing Photosynthetic and Photovoltaic Efficiencies and Recognizing the Potential for Improvement

Robert E. Blankenship, David M. Tiede, James Barber, Gary W. Brudvig, Graham Fleming, Maria Ghirardi, M. R. Gunner, Wolfgang Junge, David M. Kramer, Anastasios Melis, Thomas A. Moore, Christopher C. Moser, Daniel G. Nocera, Arthur J. Nozik, Donald R. Ort, William W. Parson, Roger C. Prince, Richard T. Sayre

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1307 Scopus Citations


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.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)805-809
Number of pages5
Issue number6031
StatePublished - 2011

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-50896


  • photovoltaic-driven electrolysis
  • solar energy conversion


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