Numerous interesting, exciting, and promising possibilities exist in the realm of alternative energy. I am constantly impressed with the clever ideas people come up with. In this article, we see an excellent idea with regard to generating electricity from sunlight – and it’s not quite what you think.

How an Artificial Leaf Could Boost Solar Power

by Bryan Walsh Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Nature is amazing. Take the humble leaf—it’s capable of absorbing the sunlight and converting it into the chemical energy that fuels the growth of plants. Photosynthesis is one of the fundamental forces of life, and it’s far superior to our technological efforts to harness sunlight. A photovoltaic solar panel can transform sunlight to electricity, but right now that power is difficult to store without expensive batteries, which limits the potential of solar energy. The sugars produced by photosynthesis, though, can be tapped by a plant for energy whenever it’s needed. A solar cell that could mimic photosynthesis would be a game changer for alternative energy.

As it turns out, we make be getting close. In an article published in the September 29 Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Daniel Nocera and his colleagues announced the development of an effective, relatively inexpensive “artificial leaf”—a solar cell that can turn sunlight directly into chemical fuel. The playing card-sized device is made up of cheap materials—silicon, cobalt and nickel mostly—and when placed in a container of water and exposed to sunlight, it generates bubbles of oxygen and hydrogen. Those gases can be collected and stored—much more easily than the electricity produced by a photovoltaic solar cell—and then used to generate power through a fuel cell.

As Nocera explained to the Financial Times, his device directly mimics nature:

It’s doing exactly the same thing as a leaf. It’s sunlight in; hydrogen and oxygen out. And you can use the hydrogen and oxygen at some later time.

Nocera has been working on the artificial leaf for some time—he’s called it the “Holy Grail” of renewable electricity. (We put Nocera on our TIME 100 list in 2009 for his work on artificial photosynthesis.) He believes the invention could make solar power affordable and viable for poor, off-the-grid locations—which is one reason why the Indian conglomerate Tata has helped finance his research. That’s why the artificial leaf is so simple—no excess equipment, no expensive materials. Ideally, the cell could produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing country with just sunlight and a gallon of water.

To keep his cells cheap, however, Nocera needs to sacrifice some efficiency—how much sunlight his cell can convert into energy. The standard commercial solar PV cell has an efficiency rate of about 10%—the artificial leaf right now is closer to 2.5%. That’s still significantly more efficient than the average actual leaf, but of course, human beings need a little more power than trees. The artificial leaf also has to be durable enough to last for thousands and thousands of hours—an older prototype, developed more than a decade ago by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory lasted barely a day. Nocera’s leaf has operated continuously for at least 45 hours, according to earlier presentations, but it will need to do better.

Still, at a moment when most of the attention on renewable energy is being directed towards phony “scandals,” it’s a good to see what a smart and dedicated scientist can do to change the way we power our lives.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME

Original post on Ecocentric

47 Responses to “Artificial Leaves: A Novel Approach To Solar Power”

  1. heland villematt says:

    We know that small businesses are adversly effected by regulation, we know that the customers of small businesses that are forced out of business do not just disappear, they have to find a new source for those products, and more times than not those consumers end up getting that product from big businesses who take a small hit to proft margins from new regulation but nothing big enough to force them to cease operations

  2. houthirunn curtner says:

    Hey fencekid, how much did it cost u all together? how long do these batteries last? and how do u get them recharged?

  3. Right, you mean a gallon. protected Saudi interests in the region for decades, since Roosevelt. We get a special deal because of it. So even when Suadi Wahhibists attacked America on (remember 15 of the Hi jackers were Saudi nationals, and the BU$H administration blacked out 28 pages of the 9/11 showing the Saudi funding of the 9/11 attacks?) we let it slide. Total costs of the resulting war including future costs is over $3 Trillion now. your debt, dumbass…

  4. gillis tria says:

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  5. drigo byleathy says:

    That right, Hemp could free us from energy, construction , medicine, paper, clothing manufacturing.. Just read the Emperor Wears no Clothes.. So dont count on cannabis being legal any time soon IMHO..

  6. Can not wait for next video. Also how reliable is this glue what is the longevity of it and becides from video what has been pros and cons of the glue and how well does it work under the topical encapsolation.

  7. tomlinkfie says:

    Is it perfect? No, but as a supplemental source it is one of the best alternative energy sources we have in the world.

  8. to ppl who spend their lifes developing alternative energy solutions that is most likely wont be commercialized in their life time.

  9. DAMS: LIFELINE FOR THE ECONOMY
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  11. hone capauls says:

    My understanding is type radiation is much worse than an A A Bomb leaves less radiation. Regardless, this is far from over. At least one and probably all 3 will hit the water table and then it will blow up. With millions of gallons of steam and water. Are you a lawyer? You systematically chew a nice hole in this professional liar.

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  15. Obama wants to complain about the price of food, but the bio-fuel legislation he is one of the biggest causes of those high prices.

    If Obama wants to fix the economy, he needs to get rid of the costly entitlement programs of this nation that eat up almost half of the entire US budget.

    I love how he wants to make home foreclosures the problem of the federal government. People were foolish enough to borrow more than they could afford, on a high interest blame Washington

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  18. eves pastremers says:

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  19. nurman mrsterlani says:

    Plants may lead to form of alternative energy
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    Bruce feels that we could use the hydrogen that the system produces as a new alternative energy source. Bruce ran his catalytic system for 90 days without any loss of activity. “We’re talking about a pretty robust system that could work,” Bruce said.

  20. I used asians as an example. saying, just because a black person is black mean stupid and they want to steal your belongings. clearly the stupid one. And spelt blatant*
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  23. flins wister says:

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    Some people need to learn to use their indoor voice on the bus. But good to learn about alternative energy.

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  47. Green Living – How to Get More Power From Your Solar Panels: If you are using solar power to cover or even just…

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