Scientists have developed a silicon-based artificial leaf that uses solar energy to split hydrogen and oxygen in a body of water, which in turn produces clean energy that can be used to power homes. The leaf, which was created by researchers from Cambridge University is able to create a synthetic gas known as syngas. Scientist hope to use the syngas produced from the artificial leaf as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Syngas is used to create a wide range of products, such as pharmaceuticals, fuels, plastics, and fertilizers.
“You may not have heard of syngas itself, but every day you consume products that were created using it,” explained professor Erwin Reisner, from Cambridge’s department of chemistry, a senior author of the research.
The device was inspired by photosynthesis, the process in which plants use energy from sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into food. The overall process of splitting hydrogen and oxygen to produce syngas is achieved by using two light absorbers. One is made of perovskite (a chemical compound) and the other is made from a cobalt catalyst. When placed into water, one light absorber uses the catalyst to produce oxygen. The other light absorber carries out the chemical reaction that reduces both carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, forming the syngas mixture.
In addition to discovering a new, clean way of producing syngas, researchers also discovered that their light absorbers are able to work in low-light conditions like on an overcast or rainy day.
“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, a PhD student and first author of the paper, published in the Nature Materials journal.“ We are aiming at sustainably creating products such as ethanol, which can readily be used as a fuel.”
Image: University of Cambridge