Power-Generating Artificial Leaf Moves Closer to Reality


Earlier this year, MIT professor Daniel Nocera made a discovery: By dipping a cobalt-and phosphate-coated artificial silicon leaf into a jar of water, he could effectively mimic photosynthesis and create power at an efficiency greater than today’s
solar panels. Now two separate teams of MIT researchers have figured out how to combine a standard silicon solar cell with Nocera’s cobalt phosphate catalyst–meaning a cheap, simple, artificial leaf is one step closer to reality.

In Nocera’s vision of a photosynthesis-mimicking artificial leaf, a water-filled glass container would feature a solar cell with cobalt phosphate catalysts on both sides. The cell would be attached to a divider that separates the container into two sections. Upon exposure to the sun, the catalysts would generate hydrogen and oxygen bubble streams that could be combined to generate electricity.

Both teams of researchers have managed to produce functioning devices, but there is still plenty of work to be done to make sure that the device could continue performing for longer than a few days:

Rajeshwar Krishnan,
Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the
University of Texas at Arlington, says it remains to be seen “whether
this ‘self-healing’ catalyst would hold up to several hours of current
flow … under rather harsh oxidative conditions.” But he adds that these
papers “certainly move the science forward.”

Nocera anticipates that the artificial leaf system will be ready in three years. In the meantime, Nocera and his company Sun Catalytix are working on a first-generation system featuring cobalt phosphate catalysts connected via wire to conventional solar cells. And eventually, a more advanced (and reasonably priced) artificial leaf could be sold to the billions of people who lack access to the electrical grid, but have plenty of access to the sun.

[Image: Flickr user fbaett]

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