Turns out plants had energy-creation right after all. A commonly used gas that is produced by fossil fuels could soon be made by an “artificial leaf.”
That gas, called syngas, is currently made from a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and makes numerous products, including fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and fertilizers. However, researchers at the University of Cambridge recently proved that syngas can be produced in a “sustainable and simple” way via the artificial leaf, pulling from the way plants utilize photosynthesis to create food and energy. Here’s how it works:
- Two light absorbers on the artificial leaf are combined with a catalyst made from cobalt, a naturally abundant element; the light absorbers function similar to the molecules that plants use to soak in sunlight.
- The leaf is then placed in water, which triggers one light absorber and the catalyst to produce oxygen.
- The second light absorber carries out a chemical reaction that breaks carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.
- From there, the syngas mixture is formed.
According to the researchers at the University of Cambridge, one of the best parts of this artificial leaf is that it can work with low light levels, including those emitted on rainy or overcast days. As a result, the technology has minimal restrictions, and can be widely used. “This means you are not limited to using this technology just in warm countries, or only operating the process during the summer months,” said Virgil Andrei, PhD student and one of the university’s researchers. “You could use it from dawn until dusk, anywhere in the world.”
On top of that, the artificial leaf doesn’t produce “additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” which could help future adopters produce quality products while also combatting climate change.
With the success of the artificial leaf, the University of Cambridge researchers are now looking at ways to “produce a sustainable liquid fuel” that might one day replace petrol. Researcher and professor of chemistry Erwin Reisner said that developing synthetic petrol is important, especially since electricity can only satisfy a quarter of the world’s total global energy demand. “There is a major demand for liquid fuels to power heavy transport, shipping and aviation sustainably,” he said.