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Scientists unveil 'world's first practical artificial leaf'

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March 28, 2011

Scientists unveil 'world's first practical artificial leaf'

Scientists unveil 'world's first practical artificial leaf'

Leaves – the kind that grow on trees – create energy from sunlight and water through the process of photosynthesis. For over a decade, scientists have been kicking around the idea of creating an "artificial leaf." Such a device would use sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which could then be stored in a fuel cell and used to create electricity. A functioning artificial leaf has been created before, but was impractical due to the fact that it was made from expensive materials, and was highly unstable. Now, however, scientists are reporting that they have created a cost-effective, stable artificial leaf.

"A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades," said MIT's Dr. Daniel Nocera, who led the research team. "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."

Nocera's leaf is about the size of a poker card (but thinner), and is made of silicon, electronics, and nickel and cobalt catalysts – all materials that are relatively inexpensive and widely-available. Placed in a gallon of water in bright sunlight, it is said to be able to produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country for a day. It would be connected to a fuel cell located either on top of or beside the house.

When tested under laboratory conditions, it was able to operate continuously for at least 45 hours without a drop in activity. Newly discovered nickel and cobalt catalysts are the key to the leaf's practicality, allowing it to reportedly operate at ten times the efficiency of a natural leaf. Nocera believes that the efficiency can be boosted much higher in future versions and has founded a company called Sun Catalytix to pursue development of the technology.

John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory created a functioning artificial leaf over ten years ago, but it incorporated costly metals, and barely lasted one day. More recently, Chinese scientists have presented a design for an artificial leaf that incorporated titanium dioxide and platinum, and Dutch researchers created a light-capturing system based on the chlorophyll of the alga Spirulina.

The MIT research was presented today at the 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, California.

Nocera discusses the technology in the following video:

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
10 Comments

Can they start working on an artificial tree that will grow some real money?

Facebook User
28th March, 2011 @ 08:35 pm PDT

Good to see that they've got their funding. That's what it's all about really isn't it?this is one of those things, that sounds too good to be true, like the car that runs on water, or the car that runs on compressed air.

I am becoming a bit sceptical of these various projects. I just cannot believe that a device the size of a poker card placed in a gallon of water can produce enough electricity to provide a house with its needs. Come on! This has got to be a con.

windykites1
29th March, 2011 @ 06:42 am PDT

@ windykites1: Note that the article states that it can power a house "in a developing country". I assume it means a single light bulb or something minimal like that.

4Freedom
29th March, 2011 @ 08:49 am PDT

So...I take it you can't just dry it out and smoke it?

Kidding aside, this is potentially a huge discovery, IF, as @windykites1 stated, this is not a con.

However, the article DID state "in a developing country", so the load requirements will only be a fraction of what we use here in North America. It would have been nice IF the article was able to give some more specific's, such as voltage output, amperage, water-useage and so on. Water can be scarce in some developing countries, so this invention would be rather like selling sand to Mid-East countries.

However, it can be another tool in the Power Generation Toolbox for Aid Agencies...

Edwin Wityshyn
29th March, 2011 @ 08:55 am PDT

I would rathor eat the energy from an apple tree

QuantumSleep
29th March, 2011 @ 09:53 am PDT

Check out youtube and you'll see that video was made available over a year ago. which explains how useless the video is.

I am really excited about this, it sounds spectacularly cheap. at least the leaf and water part of the component.

I do not know anything about fuel cells though, which is what this system feeds into. anyone have some insight on costs for that part of the system?

@edwin, more information would deffinately be welcome, but if the costs are low enough, why not have a network of collectors to power/supplement your home? I think this deffinately has applications outside of foriegn aid.

Eric MacAfee
29th March, 2011 @ 05:03 pm PDT

Look up Dyesol comp which with TATA is starting to produce metal roofing sheets with a film that works like leafs in much less light than normal solar cells.

Conshaw
29th March, 2011 @ 11:51 pm PDT

If true and scalable, this is game changing stuff.

theradarsweep
30th March, 2011 @ 06:59 am PDT

The "leaf" only works about 4 days (45 hours). What then? We get no specifics. I would bet Dr. Nocera has a lot of "bugs" on his "leaf" that need to be worked out. If we see nothing in a year or two...well, nice try, but no cigar.

voluntaryist
30th March, 2011 @ 08:28 pm PDT

This is so exciting. The next step is to get rid of the heavy metals, cobalt and nickle, in the catalyst. Plant to the job with a suite of biochemicals. One day we'll reproduce a version of what plants do.

Skip Bryant
15th April, 2012 @ 05:44 am PDT
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