How Is Energy From The Sun Converted To Chemical Energy?

How is energy from the sun converted to chemical energy?

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants and other organisms convert light energy into chemical energy that can be used to fuel the organism’s activities. The word “photosynthesis” comes from the Greek words “photo,” meaning light, and “synthesis,” meaning putting together. It’s often described as the process that allows plants to take energy from the sun and use it to make their own food.

Photosynthesis is critically important for all aerobic life on Earth. It produces oxygen as a byproduct and provides energy in the form of glucose that heterotrophs like humans can use. Without photosynthesis, plants and algae couldn’t provide food and oxygen, so most other organisms would die. That’s why photosynthesis is one of the most important chemical processes on Earth.

How Plants Absorb Sunlight

Plants absorb sunlight through specialized pigments called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is located in the chloroplasts of plant cells and gives plants their green color. There are several types of chlorophyll, but chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b are the primary pigments responsible for photosynthesis.

When sunlight strikes chlorophyll, the electrons in chlorophyll absorb the light energy. This excites the electrons and boosts them to a higher energy level. The excited electrons are then passed along an electron transport chain in the chloroplasts. The movement of the excited electrons along this transport chain provides energy for the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis.

Specifically, chlorophyll a absorbs violet-blue and reddish orange light, while chlorophyll b absorbs blue-green and yellowish orange light. By absorbing a broad spectrum of visible light, the two types of chlorophyll work together to efficiently convert light energy into a form that can drive photosynthesis.

The molecular structure of chlorophyll, which has a network of alternating single and double bonds, enables it to readily absorb light energy. This is key to its role in absorbing sunlight and powering the process of photosynthesis in plants.

The Light-Dependent Reactions

The light-dependent reactions are the first stage of photosynthesis, where light energy is converted into chemical energy. This process takes place in the thylakoid membranes within the chloroplasts of plant cells.

During the light-dependent reactions, light energy from the sun is absorbed by chloroplast pigments like chlorophyll. This excites their electrons, giving them energy to move. The energized electrons are captured and used to convert ADP into energy-storing ATP, and NADP+ into NADPH through a process called photophosphorylation. Oxygen is also produced as a byproduct.

There are two main stages of the light-dependent reactions:

  1. Photosystem II uses light energy to extract electrons from water, generating oxygen. The energized electrons move through an electron transport chain, producing ATP and NADPH.
  2. Photosystem I absorbs light energy to re-energize the electrons from Photosystem II. The energized electrons are captured to reduce NADP+ into NADPH.[1]

So in summary, the light-dependent reactions convert light energy into the chemical energy carriers ATP and NADPH, which will be used in the next stage of photosynthesis to fix carbon dioxide into sugar.

The Calvin Cycle

The Calvin cycle is the process that converts CO2 from the air into sugar molecules using the chemical energy generated during the light-dependent reactions. This process was discovered by Melvin Calvin and takes place in the stroma of chloroplasts in plant cells.

In the Calvin cycle, CO2 is combined with the 5-carbon RuBP (ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate) molecule to produce a 6-carbon intermediate called 3-phosphoglycerate. An enzyme called RuBisCO catalyzes this first step, combining CO2 with RuBP. The 6-carbon 3-phosphoglycerate then gets phosphorylated by ATP and reduced by NADPH produced during the light reactions. These reactions lead to the production of the 3-carbon glycerate-3-phosphate (GP) molecule. Most of the GP gets converted back to RuBP so the Calvin cycle can continue. However, one out of every six GP molecules gets converted into glucose, allowing the Calvin cycle to produce and store chemical energy for the plant.

Overall, for every 3 CO2 molecules that enter the Calvin cycle, 1 glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate (G3P) molecule is pushed out to be synthesized into glucose. Thus the Calvin cycle is able to convert the energy absorbed by chlorophyll into stored chemical energy in the form of glucose and other organic molecules that plants can use to grow and function.

Source: LabXchange

Oxygen Production

Oxygen (O2) is produced as a byproduct of photosynthesis and is released into the atmosphere. During the light-dependent reactions, water is split to generate protons, electrons, and oxygen. This process is called photolysis and occurs at a cluster of proteins and pigments called photosystem II. Specifically, photons of light hit the P680 chlorophyll pigment in photosystem II, providing enough energy to split water into protons, electrons, and molecular oxygen (O2). The electrons help drive the light reactions while the oxygen is released as a waste product.

The oxygen atoms combine to form diatomic oxygen gas which then diffuses out of the chloroplast and into the atmosphere. In C3 plants, oxygen release occurs during the Calvin Cycle as CO2 is fixed into organic molecules. However, the process can be inhibited in some plant species when deprived of oxygen (anoxia) [1]. Additionally, oxygen release appears diminished in the first two light flashes of photosynthesis [2]. Overall, the production and release of O2 allows photosynthetic organisms like plants to replenish atmospheric oxygen levels.


Photosystems are protein complexes located in the thylakoid membranes of chloroplasts that are responsible for absorbing light energy and converting it into chemical energy during photosynthesis (Source). There are two key photosystems involved: Photosystem I and Photosystem II.

Photosystem II (PSII) is the first complex in the light-dependent reactions and absorbs light at a peak wavelength of 680 nm. PSII contains a special chlorophyll molecule called P680 at its reaction center that is capable of undergoing oxidation upon excitation by light energy. This generates electrons that are transferred through an electron transport chain, ultimately resulting in the production of ATP and NADPH for use in the Calvin cycle (Source).

Photosystem I (PSI) is the second photosystem complex and contains P700, a form of chlorophyll that absorbs light at 700 nm wavelength. PSI accepts energized electrons from PSII and passes them down another electron transport chain that ultimately reduces NADP+ to NADPH. The two photosystems work together in a Z-scheme to convert light energy into chemical energy.


Photophosphorylation is the process by which energy from light is captured and stored as chemical energy in ATP. This process takes place in the thylakoid membranes during the light dependent reactions of photosynthesis. During photophosphorylation, photons are absorbed by chlorophyll molecules, which excite electrons in the chlorophyll and transport them through the electron transport chain. The energy of the electrons is transferred to pumping protons across the membrane, generating a chemiosmotic gradient. This gradient drives ATP synthase, which produces ATP.

There are two types of photophosphorylation – cyclic and noncyclic. In noncyclic photophosphorylation, electrons excited by light are transported all the way down the electron transport chain to generate NADPH and protons. In cyclic photophosphorylation, electrons are recycled back to chlorophyll and do not produce NADPH. Both types generate ATP through the proton gradient. However, noncyclic photophosphorylation is the major pathway of ATP synthesis during photosynthesis as it produces both ATP and NADPH needed for the Calvin cycle (Quizlet).

Cyclic vs Noncyclic Photophosphorylation

Photophosphorylation is the process of generating ATP using light energy. There are two types of photophosphorylation – cyclic and noncyclic. The key difference between cyclic and noncyclic photophosphorylation is that cyclic photophosphorylation only involves photosystem I, whereas noncyclic photophosphorylation involves both photosystem I and photosystem II.

In cyclic photophosphorylation, the electron starts at photosystem I and returns to the same photosystem. As the electron passes through the electron transport chain, it creates a proton gradient that drives ATP synthase to produce ATP. Water is not split in cyclic photophosphorylation since only photosystem I is involved. Cyclic photophosphorylation produces less ATP but allows for rapid regeneration of NADPH for the Calvin cycle [1].

In noncyclic photophosphorylation, electrons start at photosystem II and move to photosystem I before returning to photosystem II. This creates both a proton gradient for ATP production and high energy electrons to reduce NADP+ to NADPH. Noncyclic photophosphorylation requires water as electrons lost from photosystem I are replaced by electrons from the splitting of water. Overall, noncyclic photophosphorylation produces more ATP but less NADPH compared to cyclic photophosphorylation [2].

In summary, cyclic photophosphorylation produces only ATP while noncyclic produces both ATP and NADPH. Cyclic photophosphorylation regenerates only NADPH while noncyclic produces NADPH by splitting water. Both pathways work together to provide energy and reducing power for photosynthesis.

C3, C4, and CAM Plants

There are three main types of photosynthetic pathways used by plants – C3, C4, and CAM. While all three pathways convert light energy from the sun into chemical energy, they use slightly different processes.

C3 plants, like wheat, rice, and most trees, use the Calvin cycle exclusively during photosynthesis. They are called C3 plants because the first product of carbon fixation during the Calvin cycle is a 3-carbon molecule called 3-phosphoglycerate. C3 plants are adapted to cooler, wetter climates and do not tolerate hot, dry conditions very well. Under hot, dry conditions they experience photorespiration which decreases their photosynthetic output.

C4 plants, like corn, sugarcane, and crabgrass, use a two-step carbon fixation process to minimize photorespiration. They first fix carbon dioxide into a 4-carbon molecule using an alternate pathway called the C4 pathway. The 4-carbon molecule is transported to bundle sheath cells where it releases CO2 which is then fixed by the Calvin cycle. By concentrating CO2 at the site of the Calvin cycle, C4 plants reduce photorespiration and are adapted to hot, dry climates.

CAM plants, like pineapple and agave, keep their stomata closed during the day to conserve water and open them at night to take in CO2. The CO2 is stored as malic acid and then broken down during the day to provide CO2 for the Calvin cycle. CAM plants are adapted to very arid conditions.1

While the carbon fixation pathways differ between C3, C4, and CAM plants, they all rely on the Calvin cycle and light-dependent reactions to ultimately convert the sun’s energy into chemical energy stored in glucose. The variations mainly serve as adaptations to different environmental conditions that affect photosynthetic efficiency.


Photosynthesis is the incredibly important process that plants and some bacteria use to harness energy from sunlight and convert it into chemical energy in the form of glucose. This chemical energy is then used by the plant for growth, reproduction, and other processes. Photosynthesis takes place in chloroplasts and involves the green pigment chlorophyll absorbing sunlight and using that light energy to drive reactions that convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and energy-rich glucose molecules.

The overall process of photosynthesis can be summarized in two main stages – the light-dependent reactions and the Calvin cycle reactions. In the light-dependent reactions, photons of light excite electrons in chlorophyll, providing energy to generate ATP and NADPH, which will be used in the Calvin cycle to build glucose. In the Calvin cycle, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is fixed and combined with hydrogen from water to form glucose. In this process, oxygen is released as a byproduct.

Photosynthesis is absolutely critical for nearly all life on Earth. By harnessing the sun’s energy and converting it into chemical energy, photosynthesis provides the foundation for the vast majority of food chains and webs on Earth. Even organisms that do not directly utilize photosynthesis depend on glucose and oxygen produced by photosynthetic organisms for their energy needs. Given its immense importance, understanding the details of how plants convert light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis provides critical insight into the energy basis of life on our planet.

Similar Posts