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Photo: PDP.Net

Harvard professors Daniel Nocera, Pamela Silver, and Onie H. Adams have developed a system that purportedly uses solar energy to produce liquid fuel. The process involves the splitting of water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to create an actual, physical form of energy deriving directly from the sun.

Nocera explained, “This is a true artificial photosynthesis system… Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”

Close up on green leaf. (Photo: PublicDomainPictures.net)

Close up on green leaf. (Photo: PublicDomainPictures.net)

The artificial system allegedly converts solar energy to biomass nearly 10 percent faster than plants do.

“It’s an important discovery,” says Nocera. “It say we can do better than photosynthesis… If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing… It takes sunlight, water and air – and then you look at a tree. That’s exactly what we did, but we do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel.”

Dubbed the “Bionic Leaf 2.0,” the project could potentially lead to the end of man’s drilling days and atmospheric pollution caused by fossil fuels. According to Pamela Silver, “The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist – biology can be chemistry we can’t do easily… In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile.”

Just think: a world where everything, from cars to microwave ovens to electric keyboards is powered by the sun (that’s something Apollo and his fellow Olympians could be happy about).

The Bionic Leaf 2.0: An artificial photosynthesis system. (Photo Credit: Jessica Polka)

The Bionic Leaf 2.0: An artificial photosynthesis system. (Photo Credit: Jessica Polka / Silver Lab)

As with all great achievements, the Bionic Leaf didn’t come without its challenges. For one thing, the catalyst used to produce hydrogen was originally a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy. The catalyst created reactive oxygen species, which in turn attacked and destroyed the DNA of the bacteria necessary for the process to take effect. The system was eventually forced to operate under unusually high voltages. While this solved the problem, efficiency was reduced to a less-than-stellar rate.

Building on their previous work, the team was eventually able to revamp the catalyst into something greater. “For this paper, we designed a new cobalt-phosphorous alloy catalyst, which we showed does not make reactive oxygen species,” says Nocera. “That allowed us to lower the voltage, and that led to a dramatic increase in efficiency.”

What’s another big advantage? Like Wolverine from X-Men, the leaf is capable of “healing itself,” and doesn’t leech any material into solution. The suggestion is one of safety for all respective users. Nocera feels the leaf presents a wide array of commercial benefits, and hopes to further develop its technology in nations like India.

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