Harvard researchers destroyed yet again the limits of the unknown and created an artificial leaf that simulates the process of photosynthesis. The system stores the sun energy and converts it to chemical energy, by using organic and non-organic chemistry.
The artificial process in itself is even more efficient than the natural one.
Similar to what a tree would do, the invention uses the energy coming from the sun and the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The bionic leaf invention will be very useful to the renewable energy field.
“I think this is quite exciting research. Converting sunlight into chemical fuels with high efficiency is something of a holy grail for renewable energy,” said Johannes Lischner, one of the researchers.
The artificial process involves two electrodes, water, and bacteria. When electric current traverses the electrodes, water is broken into molecules and hydrogen gas is released.
A more conventional approach would be to burn the hydrogen and release thermal energy. Instead, what scientists did was to grow bacteria that live on hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
The bacteria can then produce useful compounds, or it can be genetically designed to create alcohol or plastic precursors.
Scientists have tried to make this experiment work for decades. However, until now they did not succeed, as the electrodes leached heavy metals and they only obtained reactive oxygen species which are not useful to bacteria.
The bionic leaf is working in a circuit. As water splits, hydrogen is released, and bacteria thrive. When bacteria die, the substances react and water is formed again.
Scientists are enthusiastic because of this merge of the chemical and the organic, making non-organic chemistry biocompatible.
The conversion of solar energy into biomass was studied ever since the 1960s. The early experiments managed to obtain only 1% of the expected results.
The bionic leaf reaches the efficiency of 10%, which is more than it was hoped for. Some scientists even say that the figure is even higher than the one of actual photosynthesis.
After obtaining these encouraging results, researchers will now try to make the invention useful. They will try to make a biological system that can work in areas such as Sahara desert. The purpose would be helping developing countries to store and access energy.
The research will be useful to the renewable energy field. The solar power plants do not have the capacity to store the energy created by the sun during the night time.
One of the marvels of this new bio-non-organic process is that it creates energy from almost nothing at all – electrodes, water, and bacteria, and it does not depend on natural resources as heavily as other industrial processes.
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