Can Humans Harvest The Sun's Energy Directly Like Plants?

Can Humans Havest The Sun's Energy Directly Like Plants?

Much like photosynthesis in plants, can human beings utilize light and water for their energy needs? New evidence suggests that it may be happening right now in each cell of your body.

In response to the title question, my answer is a definite "maybe."

On the positive side, a recently published paper by Herrera et al. (1) argues that the answer is yes. The authors pinpoint melanin as the central player in the drama of photosynthesis, arguing that melanin, a black substance prominent in certain tissues, absorbs all visible wavelengths. Those concentrated photons could then drive the photosynthetic process in the same way as photons do in green plants and many single celled organisms.


The authors focus on the eye, which absorbs abundant light. They address a mystery of ocular function that remains unsolved: the retina stands as one of the most avid of the body's consumers of energy; yet nearby capillaries are remarkably sparse, and therefore seemingly unable to meet those energy needs. Herrera et al. argue that the missing link could be melanin, which exists in unexpectedly high concentration in the eye. If melanin were a light antenna, collecting numerous photons, then that concentrated energy could drive metabolic processes just as they do in green plants. Melanin could resolve the energy problem.


Melanin exists not only in the eye, but also in many tissues. In a comprehensive review, Barr et al., (2) discuss many relevant features of melanin that support the authors' hypothesis. First, melanin is an ancient protein, which may have been present at the inception of life. Second, its distribution is ubiquitous not only within, but also among, living organisms. Third, melanin in brain tissue increases with ascent up the phylogenetic ladder, reaching a peak concentration in man; it is invariably found in the brain's strategic, highly functional loci. And, melanin responds to light, with semi-conductive properties. Hence, the provocative idea that melanin may be centrally involved in transduction of light energy into chemical energy gains traction from this evidence.


Our own work lends strong support to the idea that humans exploit light energy. Although we have not studied melanin, we have studied in considerable detail another light-absorbing substance that exists in higher concentration in the human body: water. Given water's simplicity and pervasiveness through nature, many presume that water must be completely understood, but in fact little has been known about how water molecules organize themselves, and especially how they respond to light — until recently.


Students learn that water has three phases: solid, liquid and vapor. But there is something more: in our laboratory we have uncovered a fourth phase. This phase occurs next to water loving (hydrophilic) surfaces. It is surprisingly extensive, projecting out from those surfaces by up to millions of molecular layers. And it exists almost everywhere throughout nature, including our bodies.


This newly identified phase of water has been described in a recent book (3). The book documents the evidence underlying the existence of this phase, and goes on to show how that phase explains many familiar phenomena in straightforward terms. A central feature is that the phase builds from light, i.e., from absorbed electromagnetic energy. The more light that's absorbed, the more extensive is the phase.


The existence of a fourth phase may seem unexpected. However, it should not be entirely so. A century ago, the physical chemist Sir William Hardy argued for the existence of a fourth phase; and many authors over the years have found evidence for some kind of "ordered" or "structured" phase of water. The fresh experimental evidence cited in the book and many papers not only confirms the existence of such an ordered, liquid-crystalline phase, but also details its properties. It is more viscous, dense and alkaline than H2O and has more oxygen since its formula is H3O2.  As a result, it has a negative charge. And like a battery, it can hold energy and deliver that energy as needed. 


The presence of the fourth phase carries many implications. Here, I outline some basic features of this phase, and then deal with several of those implications including the role of light and energy. I then focus on some biological and health applications. [Note: the video below will explain the fourth phase of water if you want a comprehensive, easy to learn overview.]


Does Water Transduce Energy?


The energy for building water structure comes ultimately from the sun. Radiant energy converts ordinary bulk water into ordered water, building this structured zone. We found that all wavelengths ranging from UV through visible to infrared can build this ordered water. Near-infrared energy is the most capable. Water absorbs infrared energy freely from the environment; it uses that energy to convert bulk water into liquid crystalline water (fourth phase water) — which we also call "exclusion zone" or "EZ" water because it profoundly excludes solutes. Hence, buildup of EZ water occurs naturally and spontaneously from environmental energy. Additional energy input creates additional EZ buildup.


Of particular significance is the fourth phase's charge: commonly negative (Figure 1). Absorbed radiant energy splits water molecules; the negative moiety constitutes the building block of the EZ, while the positive moiety binds with water molecules to form free hydronium ions, which may diffuse throughout the water. Adding additional light creates more charge separation.

Figure 1. Diagrammatic representation of EZ water, negatively charged, and the positively charged bulk water beyond. Hydrophilic surface at left. 


This process resembles the first step of photosynthesis. In that step, energy from the sun splits water molecules. Hydrophilic chromophores catalyze the splitting. The process considered here is similar, but more generic: any hydrophilic surface may catalyze the splitting. Some surfaces work more effectively than others. Melanin might be one of those.


The separated charges resemble a battery. That battery can deliver energy in a manner similar to the way the separated charges in plants deliver energy. Plants, of course, comprise mostly water, and it is therefore no surprise that water itself could exhibit similar energy conversion.



The stored electrical energy in water can drive various kinds of work, including flow. An example is the axial flow through tubes. Immersing tubes made of hydrophilic materials into water produces flow through those tubes (3), similar to blood flow through blood vessels (Figure 2). The driving energy comes from the radiant energy absorbed and stored in the water. Nothing more. Flow may persist undiminished for many hours, even days. Additional incident light brings faster flow (4). This is not a perpetual motion machine: incident radiant energy drives the flow — in much the same way that it drives vascular flow in plants and powers water from the roots to nourish trees taller than the length of a football field. 


Implications of Light Energy


This energy conversion framework is rich with implication for many systems involving water. All that's needed is water, radiant energy, and a hydrophilic surface. The latter can be as large as a slab of polymer or as small as a dissolved molecule. The liquid crystalline phase inevitably builds — and its presence must therefore play some role in the system's behavior.


Let me provide a few representative examples.


One example is...yourself. By volume, two thirds of your cells' content is water. However the water molecule is so small that making up that two-thirds volume involves numerous water molecules. If you count molecules, 99% of the molecules in your body are water molecules. Modern cell biology considers that huge fraction of molecules as mere background carriers of the "important" molecules of life such as proteins and nucleic acids. It asserts that 99% of your molecules don't do very much.


However, EZ water envelops every macromolecule in the cell. So tightly packed are those macromolecules that little room exists for any but liquid-crystalline EZ water. Most of your cell water is EZ water. As elaborated in my earlier book (5), the ordered phase water plays a central role in everything the cell does.


What's new is the profound role of radiant energy, which can power many of those cellular functions. An example is the blood flowing through your capillaries. That blood eventually encounters high resistance: capillaries are often narrower than the red blood cells that must pass through them; in order to make their way through, red cells need to bend and contort. Resistance is high. You'd anticipate the need for lots of driving pressure; yet, the pressure gradient across the capillary bed is modest. The paradox resolves if radiant energy helps propel flow through capillaries in the same way that it propels flow through hydrophilic tubes. Radiant energy may constitute an unsuspected source of vascular drive, supplementing cardiac pressure.


Why you feel good after a sauna now seems understandable. If radiant energy drives capillary flow and ample capillary flow is important for optimal functioning, then sitting in the sauna will inevitably be a feel-good experience. The infrared energy associated with heat should help drive that flow. The same if you walk out into sunlight: we presume that the feel-good experience derives purely from the psychological realm; but the evidence above implies that sunlight may build your body's EZs. Fully built EZs around each protein seems necessary for protein folding and hence for optimal cellular functioning.


A second example of the EZ's functional role is weather, which, as I will show, is not unrelated to health. Common understanding of weather derives from two principal variables: temperature and pressure. Those two variables are said to explain virtually everything we experience in terms of weather. However, the atmosphere also contains water: it is full of micrometer-scale droplets commonly known as aerosol droplets or aerosol particles. Those droplets make up atmospheric humidity. When the atmosphere is humid, the many water droplets scatter considerable light, reducing clarity; you can't see distant objects as clearly as in drier conditions.


The Fourth Phase book presents evidence for the structure of those droplets (3). It shows that EZ water envelops each droplet, while hydronium ions occupy the droplets' interior. Those internal hydronium ions repel one another, creating pressure, which pushes against the robust shell of EZ water. That pressure explains why droplets tend toward roundness.


How do those aerosol droplets condense to form clouds? The droplets' EZ shells bear negative charge. Those shells should repel one another, precluding any condensation into clouds. Droplets should remain widely dispersed throughout the atmosphere. However, droplets do often condense into clouds, and the question is how that can happen.


The agent of condensation is the unlike charges that lie in between the droplets. Richard Feynman, the legendary Nobel Prize physicist of the late 20th century understood the principle, opining that: "like-likes-like because of an intermediate of unlikes." The like-charged droplets "like" one another, so they come together; the unlike charges lying in between those droplets constitute the attractors (Figure 3). 


The like-likes-like principle has been widely appreciated, but also widely ignored: after all, how could like charges conceivably attract? A reason why this powerfully simple concept has been ignored is that the source of the unlike charges has been difficult to identify. We now know that the unlike charges can come from the splitting of water — the negative components building EZ shells, while the corresponding positive components, the hydronium ions, provide the unlike attractors in between. With enough of those attractors, the negatively charged aerosol droplets may condense into clouds.


The like-likes-like principle operates not only in clouds but also in our bodies. Wherever two like-charged substances exist, a good possibility is that they hold together because of the opposite charges lying in between. Since those separated charges build from the energy of light, one might say that the self-organization of biological materials comes ultimately from light, just as the blood flow in capillaries might also comes from light. 


We may be reluctant to call these light-driven processes photosynthesis, because they do not— as far as we know — produce sugars as end products. Nevertheless, the role of light in driving biological processes is clear.



Implications for Body Function


I present two implications of these light-driven processes: why your joints don't squeak; and why dislocated or sprained joints will swell within seconds.


Joints are sites at which bones tend to press upon one another (Figure 4). The bones may also rotate, as during deep-knee bends and push-ups. You'd think that rotation under pressure might elicit frictional resistance, with some squeakiness, but joint friction remains remarkably modest. Why so?


Cartilage lines the ends of bones. Those cartilaginous materials do the actual pressing. Hence, the issue of joint friction reduces to the issue of the cartilaginous surfaces and the synovial fluid lying in between them. How does this system behave under pressure?


Cartilage is made of classic gel materials: highly charged polymers and water; therefore, cartilage is a gel. Gel surfaces grow EZs, so cartilage surfaces should likewise line themselves with EZs. EZ buildup — driven by light — creates many hydronium ions in the synovial fluid between those EZs. Additional hydronium ions come from the molecules within that fluid, creating their own EZs and protons. Thus, many hydronium ions will lie in the area in which two cartilaginous surfaces lie across from one another. The repulsive force coming from those hydronium ions should keep the cartilage surfaces apart — some investigators maintain that the cartilage surfaces never touch, despite heavy loads. That separation means that any rough spots, or asperities, will never come into contact as the respective surfaces shear past one another; and that in turn means low friction.


For such a mechanism to actually work, some kind of built-in restraint should be present to keep the repelling hydronium ions in place. Otherwise, they may be forced out of the local region, compromising lubrication. Nature provides that safety net: a structure known as the joint capsule envelops the joint. By constraining the dispersal of hydronium ions, that encapsulation ensures low friction. That's why your joints don't ordinarily squeak.


Regarding swelling, the second issue under consideration here, osmosis evidently plays a role. Since the cell is packed with negatively charged proteins, the cytoplasm should generate an osmotic draw similar to the osmotic draw generated by diapers or gels. Physiologists know that it does.


A peculiar feature of cells, however, is their relatively modest water content. Compared to 20:1 or higher for many common gels, the cell's water-to-solids ratio is only about 2:1. That limited water content may come as a consequence of the macromolecular network's stiffness: cellular networks typically comprise tubular or multi-stranded biopolymers tightly cross-linked to one another. The resultant stiffness prevents the network from expanding to its full osmotic potential.



If those cross-links were to disrupt, however, then the full power of osmotic draw would take effect; the tissue could then build many EZ layers and therefore hydrate massively, bringing huge expansion (Figure 5). That's what happens when body tissues are injured, especially with dislocations. The injury disrupts fibrous macromolecules and cross-links, eliminating the restraining forces that keep osmosis at bay; EZ buildup can then proceed virtually unimpeded.

The reason why swelling can be so impressive is that the cross-link disruption occurs progressively. Breaking one cross-link results in higher stress on neighboring cross-link; so disruption progresses in a zipper-like fashion. When that happens, the osmotic rush of water into the tissue can continue practically without restraint, resulting in the enormous immediate swelling that is often seen. The tissue will return to normal only when cross-links repair and the matrix returns to its normally restraining configuration.



Water and Healing


During childhood illness, grandmothers and doctors will often advise: "drink more water." In his now-classical book, sub-titled Your Body's Many Cries for Water: You Are Not Sick, You Are Thirsty (6), the Iranian physician Fereydoon Batmanghelidj confirms the wisdom of this quaint advice. The author documents years of clinical practice showing reversal of diverse pathologies simply by drinking more water. Hydration is critical.


Batmanghelidj's experience meshes with evidence of healing from special waters such as those from the Ganges and Lourdes. Those waters most often come from deep underground springs or from glacial melt. Spring waters experience pressure from above; pressure converts liquid water into EZ water because of EZ water's higher density. Unlike bulk water, EZ water absorbs light in the UV-wavelength region of 270 nanometers. The more light absorbed, the higher the EZ concentration. Certain spring waters and glacial melt (7) show a spectrometer peak in this 270-nanometer region, suggesting that their therapeutic benefits could come from the relatively high EZ content.


EZ water should rehydrate tissues better than ordinary water because of its higher dipole moment. To appreciate this argument, picture a bean with positive charge localized at one end, negative at the other. The positive end of that dipole orients toward the negatively charged cell, which then strongly draws in that dipole. The larger the dipole moment, the stronger will be the draw. Since EZs contain masses of separated charges, or large dipoles, that water should hydrate cells better than ordinary water. Now under study, that feature may be particularly important for promoting good health.



Negative Charge and Anti-Oxidants


Humans are considered neutral, but I suggest that we bear net negative charge. Most physical chemists would disagree. They reasonably presume that all systems tend toward neutrality because positive charge attracts negative charge. The human body being one of those "systems," we assume that the body must be neutral.


Not all systems are neutral, however. The earth bears net negative charge, while the atmosphere bears net positive charge. Water itself can bear charge: Anyone watching MIT professor Walter Lewin's stunning demonstration of the Kelvin water dropper (8), where separated bodies of water eventually discharge visibly onto one another, will immediately see that bodies of water can bear net charge. If doubt remains, then the experience of getting an electric shock from touching certain kinds of drinking water (which my colleagues and I have personally experienced) should eradicate that doubt.


Charges can remain separated if input energy keeps them separated — something like recharging your cell phone battery and creating separated negative and positive charges at the battery's terminals. Since we constantly absorb electromagnetic energy (light) from the environment, the theoretical possibility exists that we may bear net charge.


Consider the arithmetic. Cells make up some 60% of your body's mass, and they are negatively charged. Extracellular tissues such as collagen and elastin are next in line, and those proteins bear negative charge and adsorb EZ water, which is negatively charged. Only some of the smaller compartments remain positively charged with protons (low pH), and they commonly expel water: urine, gastrointestinal system; sweat, and expired air (containing hydrated CO2 or carbonic acid). They rid the body of positive charge. The net charge should be negative, and an ordinary voltmeter connected between your clasped fingers and ground will confirm that negativity.


So, the body makes every effort to maintain that negativity by ridding itself of protons. It is as though maintaining negativity is a "goal" of life. Plants do it easily: they connect directly to the negatively charged earth. Animals need to struggle a bit more to maintain their body's negative charge, but greater mobility compensates for that struggle. 


How does our body's negative charge relate to the benefits of anti-oxidants?


Answering this question returns us to elementary chemistry. Recall that "reduction" is the gain of electrons, while "oxidation" means electron loss. Oxidation strips molecules of their negative charge, acting against the body's attempt to maintain that high negativity. To guard against such loss we employ anti-oxidants. Simply by maintaining proper negativity, anti-oxidants may keep us healthy.



The Future


Water's centrality for health is nothing new, but it has been progressively forgotten. With the various sciences laying emphasis molecular, atomic, and even sub-atomic approaches, we have lost sight of what happens when the pieces come together to form the larger entity. The whole may indeed exceed the sum of its parts. 99% of those parts are water molecules. To think that 99% of our molecules merely bathe the "more important" molecules of life ignores centuries of evidence to the contrary. Water plays a central role in all features of life.


Until recently, the understanding of water's properties has been constrained by the common misconception that water has three phases. We now understand that it has four. Taking into account this fourth phase allows many of water's "anomalies" to vanish: those anomalies turn into predictable features. Water becomes more understandable, and so do entities made largely of water, such as oceans, clouds, and human beings.


Central to the existence of that fourth phase is light, for light energy builds that phase. Ambient infrared light — literally free energy, is sufficient to maintain that phase. Additional light expands the phase. The examples above imply that through the vehicle of water, humans exploit that light to drive many processes. This energy source may help explain why some people can get by with little or no food intake (9). And, it may explain the basis of the various light therapies (10).


As Herrera et al. suggest (1), light may be critical for humans, just as it is for plants and bacteria. Nature has not deprived humans of the advantages of exploiting light. The role of melanin in the process described above has not yet been fully explored, although the melanin could conceivably absorb visible light and then emit the absorbed energy in the infrared band. That could power appreciable EZ buildup, charge separation, and therefore energy to run the cell.


Do humans photosynthesize?


Clearly, humans exploit light. I've described a water-mediated mechanism by which light energy gets transformed to other kinds of energy. The process bears some resemblance to photosynthesis, or at least the initial step of photosynthesis, in which light splits water into positive and negative components. Subsequent steps are less clear, and that's why, on the question of human photosynthesis, I suggested a definite "maybe." Herrera and colleagues might be on a productive course.




Various presentations describe these fresh understandings on light and water (11-13). A fuller, detailed synthesis appears in the above-mentioned book (3).




  1. Herrera, A.S., Esparza, M., Ashraf, G, Zamyatnin, A., and Aliev, G., Beyond mitochondria, What Would be the Energy Source of the Cell? CNS Agents in Medicinal Chemistry, 15:32-41, 2015.
  2. Barr, F. E., Saloma, J. S. and Buchele, M. J. Melanin: The organizing molecule. Medical Hypotheses 11; 1-140, 1983.
  3. Pollack G. H.  The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor. Seattle: Ebner and Sons, 2013. 
  4. Rohani M and Pollack GH: Flow through horizontal tubes submerged in water in the absence of a pressure gradient: Mechanistic considerations. Langmuir 2013 29(22):6556-61. doi: 10.1021/la4001945
  5. Pollack G. H. Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life: A New Unifying Approach to Cell Function. Seattle: Ebner and Sons, 2001.
  6. Batmanghelidj F.  Your Body's Many Cries for Water: You Are Not Sick, You Are Thirsty. Don't Treat Thirst with Medications. Falls Church: Global Health Solutions, 1997.
  7. So E, Stahlberg R, and Pollack GH: Exclusion zone as an intermediate between ice and water. in: Water and Society, ed. DW Pepper and CA Brebbia, WIT Press, pp 3-11, 2012.
  9. Straubinger, P
  10. Azeemi, S. and Raza, S., A Critical Analysis of Chromotherapy and its Scientific Evolution. eCAM 2005;2(4)481–488  doi:10.1093/ecam/neh137
  11. University of Washington faculty award lecture
  13. Recent TEDx talk .


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