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The 'Holy Grail' of science: The artificial leaf researchers claim will turn every home into its own power station

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The 'Holy Grail' of science: The artificial leaf researchers claim will turn every home into its own power station

By Daily Mail Reporter

Last updated at 7:13 PM on 28th March 2011

Scientists claim to have found the 'Holy Grail' of science in an artificial leaf that could turn ever British home into its own power station.

The leaf, which is the same size as a playing card, mimics the process of photosynthesis that plants use to convert sunlight and water into energy.

Scientists behind the invention say it could provide an affordable solution to the third world's growing energy crisis.

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Holy Grail: The leaf, which is similar to this separate prototype, mimics the process of photosynthesis that plants use to convert sunlight and water into energy

Dr Daniel Nocera, who led the research team, said: 'A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades.

'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.

'One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.'

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Future: The leaf splits water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen which are stored in a fuel cell that converts energy into electricity

The device bears no resemblance to Mother Nature's counterparts on oaks, maples and other green plants, which scientists have used as the model for their efforts to develop this new genre of solar cells.

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 a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, Nocera said.

It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen and oxygen gases would be stored in a fuel cell, which uses those two materials to produce electricity, located either on top of the house or beside it.

Nocera, who is with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that the 'artificial leaf' is not a new concept.

The first artificial leaf was developed more than a decade ago by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Although highly efficient at carrying out photosynthesis, Turner's device was impractical for wider use, as it was composed of rare, expensive metals and was highly unstable — with a lifespan of barely one day.

Nocera's new leaf overcomes these problems.

It is made of inexpensive materials that are widely available, works under simple conditions and is highly stable. In laboratory studies, he showed that an artificial leaf prototype could operate continuously for at least 45 hours without a drop in activity.

The key to this breakthrough is Nocera's recent discovery of several powerful new, inexpensive catalysts, made of nickel and cobalt, that are capable of efficiently splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, under simple conditions.

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

'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, a chemist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Source.

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that may be well and good, and i'm all for new energy,

but it seems the world (particularly third world countries) may be soon facing water shortages ,

from what i gather this isn't exactly "renewable" in the same sense that solar is,

Edited by qualia

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Whoa. That's nuts. Thanks for posting this.

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qualia, I don't think it actually uses up the water. I would think that the hydrogen at some stage in the energy releasing cycle will combine with oxygen to form water. Most energy system that run on hydrogen produce water as the waste product - clean water actually, so this might be a bonus for arid countries. It would also be interesting to see if it can use salt water. If anyone has more technical details on this please post as it is rather thin.

also I guess it might be a good idea to invest in nickel and cobalt ;)

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It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen and oxygen gases would be stored in a fuel cell, which uses those two materials to produce electricity, located either on top of the house or beside it.

so maybe i'm reading it wrong? the hydrogen and oxygen are the two main sources for the electrical output (not sure exactly how it does this, the bbc article was a bit vague). certainly one would think this was an irreversible reaction if either these two elements are used for the generation of electricity. but yeah, in terms of non-renewable energy sources, water would have to be one of the most abundant. i still personally believe the future of energy lies with nuclear fusion, but that may pose issues in itself, i'm not sure.

Edited by qualia

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Qualia, splitting the water into oxygen and hydrogen is the hard part, and consumes a lot of energy traditionally. Combusting the oxygen and hydrogen together afterwards releases a large amount of energy. You get all of the water back. And water is a lot more abundant than coal, oil or uranium.

Torsten, this press release follows a presentation from Daniel Nocera's group from MIT at the Spring ACS meet in California. It only finished yesterday (their time) so more details should follow. I haven't looked much into it but he's been quite active in the field of oxygen evolving catalyst for a number of years now. Actually his publications list is quite diverse, I guess he's got quite a number of PhD students judging from the variety, well worth a look if you have the time. Most of it's in JACS or Inorg Chem but there's a couple of Nature and Science papers in there for good measure.

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right, so the O and H2 is combined again? i didn't get that from he article. i got that the water is split, and divided the the fuel cells, the combustible materials contained therein used for energy production. I'm not saying I'm any sort of expert on this, but to me breaking compounds into atoms and using the atom's properties contained therein in a non reversible process is..... non reversible. please prove me wrong, i love knowledge......

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the article was very unclear on that but it's a pretty simple fact, think of splitting water as the same thing as recharging a battery. you have taken some power, and put it into a form that you can carry around with you. recombining the water is the same as tapping into the battery that you previously charged up.

edit: you lost me on the non reversible part so i just ignored it.

Edited by ThunderIdeal

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