Around one year ago, pursuant to the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), we reported about an artificial “leaf” that scientists in Shanghai, China had developed. Now, at the 240th National Meeting of the ACS in Anaheim, we hear word of another breakthrough in the effort to mimic a leaf’s natural ability to produce energy using sunlight and water, aka photosynthesis. What’s different this time around? According to Daniel Nocera, Ph.D, a chemist at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he and his team think this is the first genuinely practical application of the idea.
Unlike previous iterations of the concept, Nocera’s “leaf” doesn’t look like or use actual leaves at all. The device is about the size of a playing card, but even thinner. The “leaf” is made from silicone, some electronics and catalysts-elements that stimulate and amplify the chemical reactions needed to mimic photosynthesis. The catalysts that his technology uses are part of what makes it stand out from other variations of the artificial leaf idea. Nocera’s leaf is the first to use nickel and cobalt as catalysts. These elements are inexpensive, plentiful and, Nocera claims, remarkably efficient at splitting water into its constituent parts, hydrogen and oxygen.
That’s not all that makes Nocera’s idea so promising. His device, unlike some predecessors, reportedly works under surprisingly simple conditions and is very stable. Nocera says that, placed in a gallon of water with exposure to bright sunlight, his device can provide enough electricity to power a home in a third-world country for an entire day. Over the course of his studies, Nocera proved that a prototype of his artificial leaf could operate non-stop for 45 hours straight without a drop in activity. As the device splits up the hydrogen and oxygen, the elements would be fed into a fuel cell which can convert the elements into electricity.
Nocera didn’t give any indications as to what the next step for this breakthrough technology would be, but he seems optimistic that the idea is ready for prime-time operation. “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.”