Yet another new breakthrough in low cost solar energy just made its debut, and this one is a doozy: a solar cell the size of a typical leaf, that actually creates energy the same way a leaf does: with photosynthesis. No, for real. You just park it in a bucket of water and it generates enough electricity to power household devices… eventually (more on that below). The announcement was made by the lead researcher on the MIT-based project, Dr. Daniel Nocera, who said, “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades.”
Solar Power from an Artificial Leaf
The new solar cell is about about the size of a poker card. It doesn’t produce usable electricity directly, like a photovoltaic cell does. Instead, it is used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gasses. These are stored in a fuel cell, which then produces the electricity for household use. The idea is to have the combination of solar “leaf” and fuel cell as an affordable onsite renewable energy appliance that practically anyone could afford, just like a furnace, hot water heater or emergency generator. One sticking point in the research was to find a low-cost catalyst to set off the reaction, and Nocera’s team came up with several alternatives made of nickel and cobalt.
Photosynthesis and Renewable Energy
Though Nocera is apparently the first to come up with a commercially viable, low-cost renewable energy system based on photosynthesis, other researchers are also following the trail. At the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge laboratory, long-running research into a light-harvesting protein from spinach has resulted in a similar hydrogen-producing process.
Affordable Energy, Thank You Federal Government
With oil prices spiking up for the umpteenth time in the past few years, consumers are eager for a solution, and renewable energy is beginning to provide it. When Nocera’s solar leaf is ready for commercial production, we can all pat ourselves on the back: some of our tax dollars have supported his research, through the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E transformational energy program.
Image: Leaf by Kumaravel on flickr.com.
- High-Efficiency Solar Cells Getting More Efficient, Cheaper (cleantechnica.com)
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.