SciTech

Using leaves to produce clean gas

Clean energy is a hot topic in today’s scientific community, with researchers all over the world dedicating herculean amounts of time and effort towards finding innovative and sustainable solutions to fueling future generations. Although the term “clean energy” prompts many people to think about wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric plants, researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Erwin Reisner, took a unique approach by mimicking the photosynthetic machinery of ordinary leaves to produce syngas, a widely used gas in commercial products that’s currently produced from fossil fuels.

Much like ordinary leaves, these artificial leaves take in sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, the staples of photosynthesis. While one portion of the artificial leaf outputs oxygen like an ordinary leaf, the other portion focuses on reducing carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, forming the syngas mixture, forming the syngas mixture. As a pleasant surprise, the researchers found that their combinations of catalysts and sensors also operates efficiently under low-light conditions, meaning that the artificial leaf performs effectively under low-light and cloudy conditions, a step above ordinary solar panels.

“This means you are not limited to using this technology just in warm countries, or only operating the process during the summer months,” said PhD student Virgil Andrei, first author of the paper, in a Cambridge press release. “You could use it from dawn until dusk, anywhere in the world.”

While the creation of the artificial leaf itself is a breakthrough, Reisner and his team are already looking at ways to improve the device to start generating liquid fuels since syngas is a component for the synthesis of liquid fuels. What the team hopes to accomplish is to produce liquid fuels in a one-step process rather than making syngas first and then converting the gas into fuel. With such an advancement, fuel generated from the artificial leaves could be used as a sustainable and carbon-neutral alternative to petrol and fossil fuels.

Whether or not such efforts will yield success remains to be seen, but the team is confident that their choice of components, as well as their current results, indicates that they’re moving in the right direction. As the global demand for liquid fuels continues to escalate, the commercial introduction of the artificial leaf could help move us towards a more sustainable and energy-rich future. Changing means of energy production is good for the environment.