Artificial leaf harnesses sunlight for efficient fuel production

Sep 2, 2015

Lance Hayashida/Caltech

By California Institute of Technology

Generating and storing renewable energy, such as solar or wind power, is a key barrier to a clean-energy economy. When the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) was established at Caltech and its partnering institutions in 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Innovation Hub had one main goal: a cost-effective method of producing fuels using only sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, mimicking the natural process of photosynthesis in plants and storing energy in the form of chemical fuels for use on demand. Over the past five years, researchers at JCAP have made major advances toward this goal, and they now report the development of the first complete, efficient, safe, integrated solar-driven system for splitting water to create hydrogen fuels.

“This result was a stretch project milestone for the entire five years of JCAP as a whole, and not only have we achieved this goal, we also achieved it on time and on budget,” says Caltech’s Nate Lewis, George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry, and the JCAP scientific director.

The new solar fuel generation system, or artificial leaf, is described in the August 24 online issue of the journal Energy and Environmental Science. The work was done by researchers in the laboratories of Lewis and Harry Atwater, director of JCAP and Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science.

“This accomplishment drew on the knowledge, insights and capabilities of JCAP, which illustrates what can be achieved in a Hub-scale effort by an integrated team,” Atwater says. “The device reported here grew out of a multi-year, large-scale effort to define the design and materials components needed for an integrated solar fuels generator.”

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2 comments on “Artificial leaf harnesses sunlight for efficient fuel production

  • Things have come on a bit since my chemistry teacher blasted a hole in the lab ceiling whilst demonstrating electrolysis of water some 40 odd years ago- The class gained a clear understanding of the basic principle. I’m full of admiration for this team for taking it so much further.

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  • I’m not sure this is the best way forward. Genetically modified bacteria are already producing diesel fuel from CO2 from the air and water with considerable efficiency. Any fuel so produced has no impact on the carbon cycle unlike fossil fuels which turn old carbon into new CO2 and power global warming. However anything which reduces our dependence on fossil fuels has to be a good thing.

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