Researchers at UC Berkeley have created a synthetic leaf that uses water, sunlight and carbon dioxide to make liquid fuels such as methane, butane and acetate — and releases oxygen into the air, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Lead researcher on the project, Peidong Yang, plans to use a “genius” grant of $625,000 he recently received from the MacArthur Foundation to nurture the artificial leaf technology. Although it is still several years from being commercially viable, it could represent an important step on the road to creating a carbon-neutral and sustainable fuel system.
The project started in 2002 as a continuation of existing semiconductor nanowire research, Yang told the LA Times. In order to convert solar energy to chemical energy, something is needed to capture the light, which semiconductor nanowires are very good at.
Essentially producing artificial photosynthesis, the energy captured by the semiconductor is stored in the carbon-carbon bond or the carbon-hydrogen bond of liquid fuels like methane or butane. This differs from a solar panel, where semiconductors absorb solar energy and convert it to electricity.
The artificial leaves work in a similar manner to natural ones, according to Yang. Starting with water and carbon dioxide, the process adds solar energy, which converts to oxygen and chemicals useful for fuel. This fuel could be used for cars and anything else that requires energy.
Great as this all sounds for an innovative energy source, it may be a long way from the mainstream. It took 10 years of research to come up with the current first-generation, fully-functional system, which demonstrated its feasibility, but is not close to being commercially viable.
Yang says that it may take the work of one or two generations to fully unlock the potential of artificial leaves, but we’ll get there eventually.
Natural photosynthesis already is being used to produce bio-based chemicals. Late last year, AkzoNobel announced a collaboration with Dutch biochemical company Photanol to create bio-based chemical building blocks that mimic the way plants use photosynthesis, to eventually replace raw materials AkzoNobel currently obtains from fossil-based production.