Leaves are amazing at making clean energy. Through photosynthesis, they take energy from sunlight and water and convert it into chemical energy, or fuel for the plant. Researchers have been trying for years to make an artificial leaf—a material that will easily convert sunlight and water into energy that humans can use. As of today, they are a step closer.

Presenting at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, MIT’s Daniel Nocera, PhD, announced the first practical artificial leaf.

“A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” said Dr. Nocera, who led the research team. “We believe we have done it. The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station,” he said. “One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.”

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, the device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day. It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. These two gases would then be stored in an electricity-producing fuel cell located either on top of the house or beside it.

Right now, the artificial leaf is about 10 times more efficient at carrying out photosynthesis than a natural leaf. However, Nocera is optimistic that he can boost the efficiency of the artificial leaf much higher in the future.

And that’s not all. Science Now reports:

The new catalyst also appears highly stable. Nocera says his team has been operating the device for a week, using water from the nearby Charles River in Cambridge, without any drop in efficiency. The next step is to find out whether the device works equally well in seawater. If so, it could dramatically lower the cost of producing hydrogen fuel.

Use in the real world is not so far in the future, according to Discover’s 80beats blog:

Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate, plans on creating a power plant based on this research within the next year and a half.

“Nature is powered by photosynthesis, and I think that the future world will be powered by photosynthesis as well in the form of this artificial leaf,” said Nocera.

Deal me in!

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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