Daniel Nocera, previously of MIT and now Harvard, once called the artificial leaf “one of the Holy Grails of science,” but what if it was improved even further?
In all green trees and plants, photosynthesis uses energy from the sun to split water into oxygen gas and hydrocarbons, that is, sugars which the tree uses for growth. Instead of hydrocarbons, the artificial leaf is essentially a stripped down version of the genuine article that uses the power of the sun to split water apart into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen gas can then be used for the production of electricity in a hydrogen fuel cell.
The only problem with the first version of the artificial leaf was that it required purified water in order to function for any length of time. Purified water would require energy inputs, which would cut down on the efficiency of the system. It’s not that the artificial leaf is particularly efficient, but non-purified water would eventually cover it with bacterial slime and the device would cease to function. By tweaking the artificial leaf to have a rough surface on which the biofilm won’t form. Tweaking the catalyst this way, the artificial leaf can be used to generate electricity in many areas of the world where people have no access to electricity or purified water.