In a time where the products of fossil fuels run amok in our atmosphere, researchers have been busy in finding clean, efficient and feasible power resources. Solar, wind and fusion power techniques all have their negatives and and so we turn towards the delicate processes that bind nature itself, particularly photosynthesis.
Plants make their energy through a chemical reaction in their leaves. Using the photons from the sun, plants use water and carbon dioxide to make glucose in a process called photosynthesis. Artificial leaves are designed based on a similar concept. The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) made an artificial leaf with three main parts. One photoanode (Solar Panel), two electrodes and a membrane. The photoanode uses sunlight to oxidize water molecules, generating hydrogen and oxygen gas. The plastic membrane, keeps the oxygen and hydrogen gases separate to prevent an explosion after ignition. The membrane lets the hydrogen fuel be separately collected under pressure and safely pushed into a pipeline. Materials like silicon are used for the photoanode since they are semiconductors and absorb light efficiently. Here's a look at how it actually works:
However, the question remains. Is this feasible? Other alternatives like Solar Power have a number of limitations with the big ones being expensiveness and loss of power through transmission lines. Long transmission lines can lose up to 40% of their charges due to resistance which makes solar power uneconomical. To add to the problem, Lithium-ion batteries which are used to store solar electricity are also inefficient.
Silk Leaf absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen and organic compounds thanks to the photosynthetic ability of the stabilized chloroplasts inside silk protein.
However, in artificial leaf’s case, the hydrogen which is produced can be stored in highly pressurized metal containers and can be transported easily. Modes of transportation can use clean hydrogen as fuel, greatly reducing pollution in cities. Thus Artificial leaves have the potential to replace fossil fuels and become the clean energy source which countries have invested billions in finding.
However, to exploit that potential, further research, development and funding is needed. Particularly to make the process viable on a large scale new and efficient technologies must be created. Until then, we live with the sad truth that fossil fuels will continue to power the world until a truly practical alternative isn’t achieved.