Artificial Leaf Technology Clears Major Development Hurdle

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The technology of artificial photosynthesis has cleared a major hurdle in its development — researchers from Arizona State University and Argonne National Laboratory have identified and addressed one of the primary limitations in their design of a functional artificial leaf.

The creation of a functional artificial leaf — one capable of using the sun’s energy to cheaply and efficiently convert water into hydrogen fuel and oxygen — is one of the primary goals of BISfuel, the Energy Frontier Research Center at Arizona State University.

An artificial photosynthetic reaction center containing a bioinspired electron relay (yellow) mimics some aspects of photosynthesis. Image Credit: Arizona State University
An artificial photosynthetic reaction center containing a bioinspired electron relay (yellow) mimics some aspects of photosynthesis.
Image Credit: Arizona State University

“Initially, our artificial leaf did not work very well, and our diagnostic studies on why indicated that a step where a fast chemical reaction had to interact with a slow chemical reaction was not efficient,” stated ASU chemistry professor Thomas Moore. “The fast one is the step where light energy is converted to chemical energy, and the slow one is the step where the chemical energy is used to convert water into its elements viz. hydrogen and oxygen.”

So the researchers began a more thorough investigation of these processes, and looked to nature for inspiration — how had nature overcome the similar problem, occurring during photosynthesis, of oxidizing water to yield oxygen?

“We looked in detail and found that nature had used an intermediate step,” Moore continued. “This intermediate step involved a relay for electrons in which one half of the relay interacted with the fast step in an optimal way to satisfy it, and the other half of the relay then had time to do the slow step of water oxidation in an efficient way.”

Following this observation, the researchers created an artificial relay modeled after the natural one, and observed a great improvement.

Arizona State University provides more:

Seeking to understand what they had achieved, the team then looked in detail at the atomic level to figure out how this might work. They used X-ray crystallography and optical and magnetic resonance spectroscopy techniques to determine the local electromagnetic environment of the electrons and protons participating in the relay, and with the help of theory (proton coupled electron transfer mechanism), identified a unique structural feature of the relay. This was an unusually short bond between a hydrogen atom and a nitrogen atom that facilitates the correct working of the relay.

They also found subtle magnetic features of the electronic structure of the artificial relay that mirrored those found in the natural system. Not only has the artificial system been improved, but the team understands better how the natural system works. This will be important as scientists develop the artificial leaf approach to sustainably harnessing the solar energy needed to provide the food, fuel and fiber that human needs are increasingly demanding.

The new research was just published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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2 thoughts on “Artificial Leaf Technology Clears Major Development Hurdle

  • In conjunction with UC Santa Barbara, HyperSolar is also working on using solar energy to convert water into hydrogen (“inspired by photosynthesis”). Does anybody know if the research described in this article is taking a significantly different approach to this problem than HyperSolar is? If so, I would find a comparison between the two approaches to be an interesting article.

  • “Seeking to understand what they had achieved ..” It’s rare to see such epistemological honesty in a scientific press release. A lot more science works in such rather untidy ways than the textbooks would have us think.

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