Solar ‘Artificial Leaf’ turns sunlight into electricity
March 29th, 2011

MIT chemist Daniel Nocera has unveiled details about the world’s first practical artificial leaf that can turn sunlight and water into energy, which he claim could pave the way for a cheaper source of power in developing countries like India. Artificial leaf is basically a small solar cell that mimics photosynthesis and has the potential to produce low-cost electricity for individual homes.

Dr. Daniel Nocera led a team of chemists to create a tiny solar cell that mimics and improves upon regular photosynthesis. The “leaf,” which is about the size of a credit card (and looks nothing like a leaf, apparently), takes water and separates it into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used as an energy source. These leaves are 10 times more efficient than regular photosynthesis

Nocera’s solar cell isn’t the first artifical leaf, but it’s has three things that make it stand out:

  1. it’s made out of inexpensive materials that are widely available,
  2. it works simply, and
  3. its output doesn’t quickly degrade.

All those factors make the technology decidedly more practical than previous stabs at artificial photosynthetic power sources, and Nocera hopes his team’s invention will become a go-to energy source for the third world, where it could provide a house with all-day power on just one gallon of water.

It’s not as easy as putting the leaf in a bucket of water and occasionally refilling, however; the leaf would need to work with a fuel cell to store and process the hydrogen produced, making the idea a bit harder to implement, since fuel cells aren’t in widespread residential use.

These Artificial leaves of course 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 (about 10 times more efficient).

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.

The key obstacle now to this technology being practically suited for mass production is the lack of availability of cheap, durable fuel cells. Currently fuel cells capable of producing enough energy to power a modern house remain quite expensive, costing tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Still, it is reasonable to hope that similar breakthroughs will one day be able to drop the cost of fuel cells enough that the entire system will become feasible for mass deployment.

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