A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Dr Daniel Nocera, PhD, claims to have made a drastic discovery in the world of sustainable energy by developing the first "practical" artificial leaf.
These leaves are actually advanced solar cells that mimic photosynthesis, the process by which their real-life counterparts convert sunlight and water into energy. According to Nocera, the leaves, although small in size, "could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day".
The team introduced their creation this past weekend at the 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, California, but the concept of an artificial leaf is not entirely new. In fact, John Turner of the US Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado created the first artificial leaf about a decade ago. However, the biggest drawback of Turner's leaf was that it required rare, expensive metals. Moreover, it was highly unstable with a lifespan of about one day.
However, Nocera's leaf is about the size of a poker playing card and fashioned from "inexpensive materials that are widely available", such as silicon, nickel, cobalt, and some electronics. It'll also require about a gallon of water in the process. Nocera says that the leaf is able to work under "simple conditions" and is highly stable. In laboratory research, he showed that his team's leaf worked continuously for "at least 45 hours" without a drop in activity.
"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," said Nocera.
The process explained
The artificial leaves would take sunlight to split water into its two components (hydrogen and oxygen) in order to create gases that are stored in a fuel cell, similar to how green plants convert sunlight and water into energy by way of photosynthesis. The fuel cell then converts these gases into useable electricity. It's said that the artificial leaf is about ten times more efficient at carrying out photosynthesis than a natural one.
"A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades," said Nocera. "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," he said. "One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology."