Fueling the world by leaf-power could become a reality in the future if researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia have their way. Their newly published study details a system that turns water into fuel by using an artificial leaf that captures solar energy and converts it into hydrogen with outstanding efficiency. The fuel could be used to power everything from cars and houses to entire communities.
The details of the technology mark a massive step towards simulating practical, artificial photosynthesis by mimicking natural photosynthesis, where leaves take solar energy, water and CO2 and converts them into stored chemical energy for use later.
The process involves basically splitting up the water by passing an electric current through it and using nickel as a catalyst to separate out the hydrogen particles so they can be used for fuel. The result is one of the cleanest forms of energy, which contains no carbon and produces no carbon dioxide as a by-product.
"Hydrogen can be used to generate electricity directly in fuel cells. Cars driven by fuel cell electric engines are becoming available from a number of car manufacturers. Hydrogen could even be used as an inexpensive energy storage technology at the household level to store energy from roof-top solar cells," explains Professor Doug MacFarlane, co-author of the paper.
When water is converted to hydrogen to serve as fuel, the success of the process is judged on its efficiency — if it is too slow, or too expensive, it is not practical. The photosynthesizing must conserve at least 10 percent of energy for it to be worthwhile. This efficiency rate has already been surpassed by other efforts, but the researchers from Monash have managed to achieve an efficiency in excess of 22 percent — by the far the highest ever seen, though not quite enough to make it financially viable... yet.
"Electrochemical splitting of water could provide a cheap, clean and renewable source of hydrogen as the ultimately sustainable fuel. This latest breakthrough is significant in that it takes us one step further towards this becoming a reality," said lead researcher Professor Leone Spiccia.