Researchers developed an "artificial leaf" that turns solar energy into liquid fuels. And this new technology can one day power your vehicles.
Daniel Nocera from Harvard University and Pamela Silver from Harvard Medical School co-developed a new solar power system that can divide hydrogen-eating bacteria and water molecules to produce liquid fuels.
In the research published in the Science journal on June 3, the team demonstrated not just how the new solar power system can produce usable fuels but also its impressive efficiency.
"In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule," said Silver, Harvard University's Wyss Institute founding core member. Silver added that the platform can become highly versatile.
The current model was built on the previous research conducted by a team that also included Nocera and Silver. The first model of the so-called bionic leaf faced several challenges, including the creation of reactive oxygen species, which destroyed the hydrogen-eating bacteria's DNA.
The first model involved a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy hydrogen-producing catalyst. It needed to run on exceedingly high voltages that resulted in lowered efficiency.
Despite the challenges, the past model of the bionic leaf was able to produce isopropanol using solar energy.
The new model bionic leaf 2.0 carries a cobalt-phosphorous alloy catalyst and does not produce reactive oxygen species. The ability to run on low voltage enables the device to increase its efficiency level dramatically.
The bionic leaf 2.0 can transform solar energy into biomass with an efficiency rate of 10 percent. The rate is far beyond the 1 percent observed among fastest-growing plant species.
The new model can also create isopentanol, isobutanol and a bio-plastic precursor called PHB. The catalyst's self-healing ability prevents it from leaking into the finished solution.
"It's an important discovery — it says we can do better than photosynthesis. But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well," said Nocera, a Patterson Rockwood professor of Energy at Harvard University.
The new technology took a page from Mother Nature's playbook and used photosynthesis to transform solar energy into fuel. Harvard University's First 100 Watts program helped fund the latest research.