Powered by the Sun: The Artificial Leaf

solar_power1Despite progress made in recent decades, solar power still has some obstacles to overcome before it can be completely adopted. Thanks to several innovations, the price of manufacturing and installing solar panels has dropped substantially, intermittency remains a problem. So long as solar power remains limited by both geography and weather, we can expect to remain limited in terms of use.

And short of building Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) arrays, or producing super-capacitor batteries with graphene – both of which are being explored – the only other option is to find ways to turn solar power into other forms of usable fuel. When the sun isn’t shining, people will need something else to power their homes, appliances, heating and AC. And given that the point is to reduce pollution, it will also have to be clean.

??????And that’s precisely what Daniel Nocera and his team are doing over at the University of Harvard. Their “artificial leaf” – a piece of silicon (solar cell) coated with two catalysts – is a means of turning sunshine into hydrogen fuel. Basically, when sunlight shines in, the leaf splits the water into bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen on each side, which can then be used in a fuel cell.

Efforts in the past to build similar solar cells have faltered, due largely to the costs involved. However, with the price of solar-related materials dropping in recent years, this latest device may prove commercially viable. And built to a larger scale, the device could provide a super-cheap and storable energy source from which could then be piped off and used in a fuel cell to make electricity. And combined with arrays of solar panels, we could have the energy crisis licked!

artificial-leafNocera and his team first announced the technology back in 2011, back when he was still a chemist at MIT. Since that time, they have published a follow-up paper showing how the team has improved the leaf’s efficiency, laying out future challenges, and how these might be overcome. Foremost amongst these are a field trial, with the eventual aim of building a commercial device for the developing world.

Beyond that, Nocera hopes to commercialize the technology through his company, the Massachusetts-based Sun Catalytix. Once realized, he plans to to put his dream of giving the poor “their first 100 watts of energy” into action. Here’s hoping he succeeds. The poor need power, and the environment needs a break from all our polluting!

Thank you all for reading the latest installment of PBTS! And be sure to check out this video of the artificial leaf in action:

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