Plants are the original solar power generators, turning the sun’s rays into energy through the process we all learned about in biology class: photosynthesis. So, when we think of solar power, we should be thinking about plants instead of solar panels.
Researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a device that mimics that process artificially, producing what could be the cleanest energy on earth. In fact, they claim their “artificial leaf” is even more efficient than real plants at harnessing the power of the sun and turning it into useable energy.
In a study published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, the research team explains how their artificial photosynthesis machine uses electrochemical water splitting, using commercially produced solar cells to generate hydrogen and oxygen by passing an electrical current through water. This process creates hydrogen fuel, a clean form of energy, and there are zero carbon emissions to contribute to global warming.
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Professor Doug MacFarlane leads the Energy Program of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science at Monash University and is one of the authors of the study. “We’re effectively trying to carry out photosynthesis artificially, and much more efficiently than plants do,” he told Mashable Australia. And they are. The artificial leaf—which isn’t likely to look like a leaf at all—generates clean energy through artificial photosynthesis at a rate of 22 percent energy efficiency. The previous record for energy efficiency in solar fuels was 18 percent. Most plants have an energy efficiency level between 1 and 2 percent, according to MacFarlane, so this artificial alternative represents a huge leap in output.
MacFarlane and his team aren’t satisfied with those results, though. They are continuing work to improve the energy efficiency of their artificial leaf, aiming for a 30 percent efficiency rating. He admits this technology isn’t something that will be on the market very soon, especially as electricity rates continue to be so affordable. However, MacFarlane looks forward to a day when a water-splitting artificial photosynthesis machine might be installed in a home’s basement or inside a wall, giving everyone access to clean energy with zero contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.