Ecomaterials Lab: A fake leaf with real potential

Artificial leaf

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

It was announced yesterday that researchers from MIT’s Nocera Lab, led by 2009 PopTech speaker Dr. Daniel Nocera, had created an "artificial leaf," an advanced solar cell the size of a playing card that mimics photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunlight and water into energy.

Made from silicon, electronics, catalysts and substances that accelerate chemical reactions, the device uses sunlight to break water into hydrogen and oxygen that can then be used to create electricity in a separate fuel cell.  Placed in a gallon of water and left in the sun, Nocera said that these “artificial leaves” could provide a home in the developing world with enough basic electricity for a day.

In a press release from the American Chemical Society, Nocera said:

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.

While the “artificial leaf” is not a new concept (the first was developed more than a decade ago by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado), Nocera Lab’s version is made from much more stable and inexpensive materials than the earlier model. It's also currently 10 times as efficient as a real leaf.

Though the technology is still in its beginning stages, the implications for it are huge. Bringing such technology to scale could drastically alter the energy landscape and pave the way for a hydrogen-based economy.  Even in the near term, the “artificial leaves” could provide energy for at least some off-the-grid parts of the globe.

"Nature is powered by photosynthesis, and I think that the future world will be powered by photosynthesis as well in the form of this artificial leaf,” Nocera said.

Image via PopSci and Sun Catalytix

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