‘Artificial leaf’ makes fuel from sunlight

‘Artificial leaf’ makes fuel from sunlight

10:18 PM, 1st November 2011
‘Artificial leaf’ makes fuel from sunlight
The 'artificial leaf,' a device that can harness sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen without needing any external connections, is seen with some real leaves, which also convert the energy of sunlight directly into storable chemical form.

MASSACHUSETTS, US: Researchers led by MIT Professor Daniel Nocera have produced something they’re calling an “artificial leaf”: Like living leaves, the device can turn the energy of sunlight directly into a chemical fuel that can be stored and used later as an energy source.

The artificial leaf, a silicon solar cell with different catalytic materials bonded onto its two sides, needs no external wires or control circuits to operate. Simply placed in a container of water and exposed to sunlight, it quickly begins to generate streams of bubbles: oxygen bubbles from one side and hydrogen bubbles from the other.

The creation of the device is described in a paper published September 30 in the journal Science. Nocera is the Senior Author; the paper was co-authored by his former student Steven Reece PhD ’07 (who now works at Sun Catalytix, a company started by Nocera to commercialize his solar-energy inventions), along with five other researchers from Sun Catalytix and MIT.

The device, Nocera explained, is made entirely of earth-abundant, inexpensive materials, mostly silicon, cobalt and nickel and works in ordinary water. Now that the “leaf” has been demonstrated, Nocera suggested one possible further development: tiny particles made of these materials that can split water molecules when placed in sunlight, making them more like photosynthetic algae than leaves. The new device is not yet ready for commercial production, since systems to collect, store and use the gases remain to be developed.  

Ultimately, he sees a future in which individual homes could be equipped with solar-collection systems based on this principle: Panels on the roof could use sunlight to produce hydrogen and oxygen that would be stored in tanks and then fed to a fuel cell whenever electricity is needed.

Professor James Barber, Biochemist from Imperial College London who was not involved in this research, said Nocera’s 2008 finding of the cobalt-based catalyst was a “major discovery,” and these latest findings “are equally as important.”

Nocera’s ongoing research with the artificial leaf is directed toward “driving costs lower and lower,” he said and looking at ways of improving the system’s efficiency. At present, the leaf can redirect about 2.5 per cent of the energy of sunlight into hydrogen production in its wireless form; a variation using wires to connect the catalysts to the solar cell rather than bonding them together has attained 4.7 per cent efficiency.

Another line of research is to explore the use of photovoltaic (solar cell) materials other than silicon, such as iron oxide, which might be even cheaper to produce. “It’s all about providing options for how you go about this,” said Nocera.

(C) Massachusetts Institute of Technology News

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