First Practical "Artificial Leaf" Powers Fuel Cells for Rural Homes


Photo by Kumaravel via Flickr Creative Commons

Scientists have long been trying to mimic the photosynthesis perfected by leaves -- turning sunlight and water into energy that can be stored. While many have made attempts, there seems to be one group of scientists that have pulled it off. The news comes from the 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, where the researchers made their announcement. The "artificial leaf" would be used to generate power for off grid homes in developing areas, and the hope is that one such "leaf" could provide enough energy for an entire household.

How the Artificial Leaf Technology Works
The advanced solar cell is about the size of a poker card, and mimics photosynthesis. This is different from the solar cells we're used to, which convert sunlight into energy directly. Instead, this process utilizes water as well, just as typical leaves work. Made from silicon, electronics and catalysts, the solar cell is placed in a gallon of water in bright sunlight where it can go to work splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and storing the gasses in a fuel cell. One of these solar leaves, the team hopes, can create potentially enough electricity for daily use in a household in a developing area.

While the artificial leaf is a technology in the works for over a decade, it has always been impractical for wider use because of the expense of creating the "leaves." However, the new leaf debuted last week uses cheaper materials -- namely nickle and cobalt -- that could be scaled up in manufacturing.

To understand more about artificial leaf technology and the science that has been chased for a decade, check out this video:

Artificial Leaf Technology a "Holy Grail" of Science
"A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades," said Daniel Nocera, Ph.D., who led the research team, in a press release. "We believe we have done it. The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station. One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology."

A prototype of the leaf worked continuously for 45 hours without dropping in activity, and is reportedly 10 times more efficient at carrying out photosynthesis than a natural leaf.

Bringing the Artificial Leaf to Market
The team is already working on getting the technology closer to manufacturing. SmartPlanet reports, "Research, however, is still in its early days. Even so, Nocera's start-up Sun Catalytix, as reported by Live Mint last week, has signed a deal with the Indian company Tata group that could try to bring the technology to market."

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More on Artifical Leaf Technology
Water Photolysis: Turning the Sun's Light Directly into Hydrogen
Nanoptek Combines Sunlight and a Nanostructured Photocatalyst to Produce Cheap Hydrogen
Could a Solar-Hydrogen Economy Supply All our Energy Needs?

Tags: Alternative Energy | Biomimicry | Concepts & Prototypes | Solar Power

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