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Monday, March 28, 2011

World's First 'Practical' Artificial Leaf Can Cheaply Turn Water Into Energy

by T Goodman
A team of chemistry and engineering scientists from MIT today announced the completion of their quest to create an artificial leaf that creates electricity from water like a leaf produces oxygen and food from carbon dioxide.

The discovery, formally presented by its leader, MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, doesn't look like a leaf, but rather like a very thin credit card. But placed in a gallon of water, the biomimicked leaf can produce enough electricity for a day in a house in a developing country. In the lab, Nocera was able to keep a prototype running for 45 hours without a drop in activity.

"A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades," said Nocera. "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," he said. "One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology."

Tata Motors has already signed up Danel Nocera to commercialize his artificial leaf. An unidentified spokesperson from the company said that it was the latest step in Tata's efforts to serve the "bottom of the pyramid." With each home having the equivalent of a mini power plant, Tata's intention just may be to bring power to the three billion people in the world who don't have it.

There have been other successful attempts at creating electricity from water, but they were too expensive to produce on a large scale. The MIT leaf is made of inexpensive materials that are readily available - silicone, electronics, and special catalysts.

It was Nocera's recent discovery of several catalysts made from nickel and cobalt, that created his breakthrough. These catalysts are what split the water into hydrogen and oxygen under very simple conditions - even dirty water can be used. His artificial leaf is now 10 times more powerful than a natural leaf at photosynthesis, and Nocera is confident that, in the future, it will be much more powerful.

"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," he said.
Nature has it all, doesn't it?

sources: PopSci, LiveMint via Fast Company, American Chemical Society, Nocera abstracts
T Goodman

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