Two teams of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), under the direction of Professor Daniel Nocera, have made what they say is another breakthrough in the effort to develop an “artificial leaf”. The artificial leaf, which Nocera describes as “one of the Holy Grails of science”, aims to artificially replicate what a leaf does naturally through photosynthesis: produce energy from sunlight and water by separating hydrogen and water molecules.

According to a report from MIT, Nocera encouraged two separate teams to work on a project that combines a simple silicon solar cell with a catalyst that, when submerged in water and exposed to sunlight, would separate oxygen molecules. Apparently, both teams succeeded, which Nocera says “speaks to the versatility of the catalyst system.”

Green Leaf
image via PubSub

Apparently, the tricky part to this process is keeping the silicon solar cell from being corroded by the chemical reaction that the catalyst facilitates. Each team used different approaches to protecting the silicon solar cell, both of which proved successful when each respective application managed to cause oxygen to bubble up out of the water. Nocera says the next step is to integrate the second catalyst, which will cause hydrogen molecules in the water to separate as well. Presently, the current device leaves hydrogen atoms in the water as loose protons and electrons.

If this report of MITs progress with the artificial leaf seems familiar, that may be because, just a few months ago, a very similar MIT breakthrough was reported. The difference here, as far as we can tell, is that in the former device, the catalysts used were based on cobalt and nickel, whereas this newer device is based on cobalt and phosphorous, both of which are plentiful and inexpensive resources.

Ultimately, Nocera hopes a larger-scale version of this device could provide useful power in developing countries where electricity is not available. The oxygen and hydrogen that are extracted could be fed to a fuel cell to create electricty.

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