Nature offers us some promising design solutions that could
revolutionize solar energy. One of the most interesting is the biomicry of the ubiquitous process in nature that converts sunlight to energy. The specific process is called photosynthesis, which uses sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water. In plants this commonly involves the green pigment chlorophyll where oxygen is a beneficial byproduct. This process has been around for almost 3 billion years. Now scientists have succeeded in creating an artificial leaf, long considered to be one of the Holy Grails of science.
The first solar cell capable of photosynthesis like process was created in 2001, but it was too expensive. In 2011 Dr Daniel Nocera created a commercially viable low-cost, artificial leaf using nickel and cobalt catalysts and water that mimics the process of photosynthesis. It makes fuel by splitting oxygen and hydrogen atoms and storing the latter in a fuel cell. This concept has been improved in 2016.
As reported by Scientific American in June of this year, Nocera and his team updated their artificial leaf by partnering with synthetic biologist Pamela Silver of Harvard Medical School and her team. Together they created a bionic leaf by combining biology and technology. Using solar electricity the process splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, microbes then feed on the hydrogen and convert CO2 in the air into alcohol fuels. The process uses natural
materials, is inexpensive and it is easy to set up.
According to Nocera, “This is the nirvana of what we’ve been talking about for years. Solar
power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now, we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon.”
James Barber, biochemistry professor at Imperial College London, called this breakthrough a ‘giant leap’ towards generating clean, carbon-free energy on as massive scale. In a statement, he also said: “This is a major discovery with enormous implications for the future prosperity of humankind. The importance of their discovery cannot be overstated since it opens up the door for developing new technologies for energy production, thus reducing our dependence for fossil fuels and addressing the global climate change problem.”
Nocera has said that he’s hopeful that within a decade homes will no longer be connected to the grid and instead generate their own power during daylight hours and use this new energy storage
method for electricity at night.