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This Artificial Leaf Could Be Humanity's Lifeline When Fossil Fuels Are Out

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Scientists from Monash University in Melbourne designed an artificial leaf that could potentially fuel the planet in the future. The researchers said that it may only be a matter of years when the artificial leaf would power every house, car and community on Earth.

As a fuel source, the artificial leaf relies on what energy researchers have long promoted as the ultimate form of sustainable fuel, hydrogen. The device is inspired by the natural process of photosynthesis, in which plants produce energy by tapping on sunlight to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Study researcher Doug MacFarlane, from Monash University's School of Chemistry, said that learning what plants do with sunlight to produce carbon compound could pave way for researchers to develop artificially produced fuels.

"We have to learn as much as we can from photosynthesis, in other words what goes on in leafy plants, because that's where most of our energy has otherwise come from in terms of fossil fuels or current kinds of carbon materials that we use either as food or fuel," MacFarlane said.

Energy researchers used a variety of metals as artificial catalyst to separate hydrogen from water. Unfortunately, many of these metals such as platinum and palladium are rare and expensive. Other systems also used pollutants like lead and cadmium.

MacFarlane and colleagues used nickel as catalyst for their system which allowed them to do the process at a reasonable cost. Their system, which is already ideal because of the costs, also appeared to be efficient as it was able to capture 22.4 percent of the solar energy as hydrogen. The benchmark for practical impact is 10 percent, which means that MacFarlane's team did well with their system.

"It is widely considered that such "Artificial Photosynthesis" processes need to achieve an energy conversion efficiency exceeding 10 % to have practical impact," MacFarlane and colleagues reported in their study, which was published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science on Aug. 11.

"We describe here a system that utilises concentrated solar power, which is inexpensive to produce, and an electrolyser module based on Earth-abundant materials capable of operating under benign conditions. This system delivers the highest efficiency reported to date, in excess of 22 %."

Thomas Faunce, from the Australian National University, said that artificial photosynthesis could help in dealing with the world's problems on energy security and climate change. 

Photo: Yuri Levchenko | Flickr

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