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"There are foundational scientific challenges we face that require outside-the-box thinking," says biochemist Anne Jones. She'd include in that number her own attempts to create artificial photosynthesis. While nature is good at what it does, it's generally pretty slow. Petroleum takes millions of years to form. Even photosynthesis, which fuels plants, is sluggish. But, as Jones is showing, it doesn't have to be. In regular photosynthesis, a single cell absorbs energy from sunlight during the day and then converts it to fuel. It's an inefficient process; the cell captures more energy than it can use, and the conversion-to-fuel part is slow. Jones and her postdoc, Angelo Cereda, are studying how to speed photosynthesis and make it more efficient, which could mean higher energy production and even lead to the invention of a new eco-friendly energy source. "Even the oil companies realize we're running out of fuel faster than people want to acknowledge," Jones says. But such research would be impossible without federal funding; the National Science Foundation provided the grant that makes Jones's work possible. It's high risk, but also, potentially, high reward, Jones says—"stuff that people typically won't do in their labs unless they have the money to do it."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.