Scientists Develop 'Bionic Leaf' That Turns Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel

The days of drilling for oil are numbered.
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Scientists at Harvard University have found a way to create liquid fuels using nothing but sunlight.

Professor Daniel Nocera and his team have created a "bionic leaf" which uses the sun's energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels.

"This is a true artificial photosynthesis system," Nocera explains. "Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we've gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature."

The "bionic leaf 2.0" is the second iteration of their design but improves on their previous version in one key area: efficiency.

Jessica Polka/Silver Lab

Before the team were able to create hydrogen but with a electricity bill to boot. This time round however the team have found a way to create the hydrogen while incurring hugely minimal costs.

"It's an important discovery--it says we can do better than photosynthesis," Nocera said. "But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well."

"If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing," he said. "It takes sunlight, water and air--and then look at a tree. That's exactly what we did, but we do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel."

Hydrogen fuel cells can power everything from cars to mobile phones.
Hydrogen fuel cells can power everything from cars to mobile phones.

What makes this even more impressive is that the process they've developed doesn't just have to stop at creating fuels.

Pamela Silver, who co-authored the paper with Nocera and the team, explains:

"The beauty of biology is it's the world's greatest chemist -- biology can do chemistry we can't do easily," she said.

"In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile."

With hydrogen vehicles now increasing worldwide as an alternative to fossil and purely electric cars this new process could have wide repercussions for their success on a global scale.

The plan going forward is to create a larger-scale version of the "bionic leaf" and then find a way to operate it at industrial levels.

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