The Mobile Future of Solar Tech; Boston-area Researchers Develop an Artificial Leaf for Generating Fuel

Posted by erik devaney

Mobile is an overarching trend in 2010s technology. Smart phones and tablets are fast becoming our Web-surfing tools of choice, replacing those desk-bound behemoths known as “computers.” The Internet is even being redesigned to better accommodate our mobile needs. For researchers at MIT and the Cambridge-based renewable energy company, Sun Catalytix, the mobile revolution does not need to stop at telecommunications: solar technology can also benefit from shedding its wires.

Daniel Nocera, MIT professor and founder of Sun Catalytix (the company that commercializes Nocera’s solar innovations), recently led a team in developing an artificial leaf. Like an actual leaf, the team’s solar creation can convert the energy from sunlight into fuel. Perhaps even more remarkably, the artificial leaf does not require control circuits or any external wires in order to function.

New England Post recently got in touch with three of the brains behind the artificial leaf’s development: Michael P. Decelle, President & CEO of Sun Catalytix; Thomas D. Jarvi, CTO of Sun Catalytix; and Dr. Steven Y. Reece, co-founding member and Research Scientist with Sun Catalytix. The Sun Catalytix employees explained what sets the artificial leaf apart from the standard solar panels we are familiar with today.

One of the most fundamental differences between the two is that the artificial leaf does not convert sunlight into electrical energy. Instead, as Jarvi told New England Post, the leaf converts sunlight “directly into chemical energy in the form of hydrogen and oxygen.” With electrical energy, you either have to use it right away or find a way to store it, the latter of which can be a challenge. In comparison, you can store chemical energy relatively easily (such as in a fuel cell) and then use that energy whenever you need it.

The artificial leaf functions by being submerged in water and using sunlight to breakdown that water into its base elements: hydrogen and oxygen. While one catalytic material on one side of the leaf releases hydrogen, a different catalytic material on the other side of the leaf releases oxygen. Check out the video below to see the leaf in action:

Collecting the hydrogen produced by the artificial leaf could have a significant impact on the future of renewable fuels. As Decelle commented, one kilogram of hydrogen has the energy equivalence of one gallon of gasoline.

Because the artificial leaf does not require any external wires or circuitry, adapting the device to different local environments will be easy. As Jarvi pointed out, no advanced infrastructure is necessary: all an environment needs to support the artificial leaf is water and sunlight. And if a person decided to move, there would be no heavy-lifting or complicated de-installation projects to consider; he or she could just remove the lightweight artificial leaves from the water and bring them along.

Sun Catalytix is still deciding on the exact sizes and form factors the commercialized artificial leaves will take on. Ideally — as the Sun Catalytix team told New England Post — the company will translate the technology into different geometric forms, enabling solar capture to be done in the most cost-effective manner possible.

“Low-cost, renewable fuel,” said Reece. “That’s the goal.”

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  3. Massachusetts Extending Solar Hot Water Program to Commercial Buildings
  4. Boston-Based Company Finds ‘Perfect Fuel’ for Athletes
  5. Whatever Happened to the Hydrogen Car? New Findings from MIT Could Get the Wheels Turning Once Again

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Posted by erik devaney on Oct 5 2011. Filed under Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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