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BBC Future

Horizons

Artificial leaf hopes to power the world

The tiny piece of technology that has enormous potential – converting sunlight into storable energy.

Imagine if you could draw energy from almost unlimited sources found in nature – water and light. That’s one possibility if Harvard professor Daniel Nocera’s idea for a device that can harness and store energy from the Sun comes to fruition.

Adam Shaw travels to Boston to meet Nocera who has developed an artificial leaf that replicates photosynthesis. Silicon wafers are coated on each side with a different catalyst – one side produces hydrogen, the other produces oxygen. A barrier between them allows the gases to be collected separately, and stored in a fuel cell that generates electricity.

The catalysts are cheap, earth-abundant materials and form by self-assembly, which should make manufacture cheaper. The challenge is overcoming the high engineering costs needed for the light-harvesting infrastructure to make it commercially scalable. If this can be overcome, this small piece of technology could have enormous potential.

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