‘Artificial leaf’ produces clean fuel

‘Artificial leaf’ produces clean fuel
iStock-Supersmario. Please note: This is not the 'artificial leaf' used in the study.

An ‘artificial leaf’ powered by carbon dioxide, sunlight and water, could potentially be used to create a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol.

The ‘artificial leaf’ is carbon-neutral and has set a new benchmark in the field of solar fuels. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have demonstrated that it can directly and sustainably produce the gas, syngas.

The study, published in the journal Nature Materials, produced an artificial leaf, powered by sunlight, that can efficiently produce syngas without any additional carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

Syngas is currently produced from a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and is used to produce fuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics and fertilisers.

Senior author, Professor Erwin Reisner, from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, has spent seven years working towards this finding an alternative fuel source. Professor Reisner said: “You may not have heard of syngas itself but every day, you consume products that were created using it. Being able to produce it sustainably would be a critical step in closing the global carbon cycle and establishing a sustainable chemical and fuel industry.”

Produced by Reisner and his team, this device was inspired by the photosynthesis of plants. The natural process creating fuel for plants out of sunlight highlighted an opportunity for alternative fuel measures.

The leaf includes two light absorbers, similar to the molecules found in plants, that combine with a catalyst made from natural cobalt. After being immersed in water, the device produces oxygen from the catalyst and one of the light absorbers, whilst the other light absorber carries out a chemical reaction in order to for the syngas mixture.

“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. “You could use it from dawn until dusk, anywhere in the world.”


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