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Energy Breakthrough 2017: Artificial Leaves

Green Leaf with glowing sun - artificial leaf energy

After years of research and testing, scientists successfully created an artificial leaf. This bold innovation won’t be used for indoor landscapes though; it’s meant to harness energy from the sun and may soon become a viable source of clean fuel.

Through photosynthesis, plants are able to convert 1% of sunlight into food, but the artificial leaf has achieved 10% efficiency when using pure carbon dioxide.

Photosynthesis, the process used by plants to convert sunlight into chemical energy and ultimately food, happens primarily in the plant’s leaves. Only green leaves are capable of completing this process, as the green pigment, called chlorophyll, absorbs sunlight. Combined with carbon dioxide and water, chlorophyll produces carbohydrates for the plant’s consumption.

The artificial leaf works on the same premise, but on turbo speed. The Harvard Gazette reports that the system has surpassed the efficiency of photosynthesis. The bold technology is so promising that it has been named as one of the breakthrough technologies of 2017.

Artificial Leaves Create, Harvest, & Store Energy

Think of photosynthesis as a plant’s way of generating and storing energy for itself. Scientists have been envious of this capability, because hey, the world needs free energy. For decades, researchers have tried to generate fuel that could be stored for later use. Solar energy and wind energy are dependent on weather conditions to function properly, thereby making energy creation intermittent. The artificial leaf runs like clockwork and stores excess energy.

More importantly, because the process of photosynthesis in the artificial leaves requires carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas, it also cleans and rejuvenates the atmosphere while creating energy. This makes the artificial leaf the cleanest energy technology there could possibly be – effectively transforming carbon dioxide emitted by combustion into fuel to be used again and again.

A graphic of the energy cycle with artificial leaves.

The artificial leaf was created by two Harvard University geniuses: Professor of Energy, Daniel Nocera, and Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology, Pamela Silver. It is a contained system that makes use of “solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels.”

The leaf houses hydrogen-eating bacteria which consume carbon dioxide to generate clean fuel at faster-than-real-plant speeds.

Through photosynthesis, plants are able to convert 1% of sunlight into food, but the artificial leaf has achieved 10% efficiency when using pure carbon dioxide. Its efficiency dips to 4% when it uses carbon dioxide from the air – cleaning it in the process.

Largest Energy Breakthrough of this Century

The artificial leaf is seen as groundbreaking technology because it solves the problem of creating portable energy. It can be created at a different location, stored, and then transported to wherever it is needed.

Self-sufficient citizens, or those who have chosen to live off the grid, will benefit from using artificial photosynthesis to power their basic needs.

Using artificial leaves is as close to nature as it can get. This discovery could hasten the process of replacing coal power stations with solar cell facilities or wind turbine farms.

The artificial leaf does not require expensive and complicated infrastructure, making it ideal for developing countries as well. It can be set up on the fly and restore energy to areas devastated by natural calamities.

This may be the bold energy breakthrough society has been searching for.

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