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EcoAlert: MIT Lab Creates Artificial Leaf that can Turn Sunlight and Water into Energy

Posted on: March 30, 2011

One of the most promising sources of future energy is solar power. We’re currently only harvesting a minuscule fraction of the estimated 12.2 billion kilowatt-hours of solar energy that hits the Earth every day . While nuclear fission and fusion power also will be critical to the future of man, solar power may be usable on planetoids that lack fissile fuels like uranium and fussile fuels like deuterium.

Before we can get to such ambitious terrestrial or interplanetary objectives, much work needs to be done. A pair of new studies published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Colorado School of Mines offer intriguing tools that could one day be applied to making solar power more efficient.

I. Growing a Solar “Tree”

Scientists often find that nature has produced designs that rival any that mankind has cooked up. A perfect example of that is the tree.

A dominant plant species across much of the world, trees have solved much of the problems that have puzzled alternative energy scientists. They not only store collected solar energy in polysaccharides, but also manage an immensely large solar collecting surface via their multipurpose evolutionary invention, the leaf.

Using the chemical model of the leaf, researchers at MIT created a poker card-sized silicon cell, doped with special catalysts and controlling electronics. The team reports that the device is capable of producing an abundantly positive energy balance by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. The reactions it carries out are similar to those that occur inside chloroplasts in photosynthetic plant cells.

The emitted gases could be harvested and stored for use powering a fuel cell. Daniel Nocera, Ph.D. [profile], who led the team, describes [press release], “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades. 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.”

Professor Nocera reports that his leaf actually beats nature’s design in efficiency by a factor of 10, and may be even more efficient in the future. Of course it lacks natural leafy plants’ ability to heal from damage, self-replicate, and self-generate from ground resources. Nonetheless, the efficiency mark is an impressive achievement.

The key to that success is special nickel-cobalt catalyst that Professor Nocera cooked up. Much like photosynthetic pigments that use metal ions as their active center, these catalysts use the harvest solar energy to perform chemical reactions.

John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado created a similar “solar leaf” a decade ago, but it relied on expensive rare metal catalysts. Since then, many other researchers have created new solar leaf designs, but most of their designs remained quite expensive or lacked efficiency.

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