As far as sustainable energy systems go, nothing is quite as perfect as a plant: Through photosynthesis, plants create their own energy using only sunlight and water. For years, scientists have been trying to replicate this process to produce usable energy for people, but it’s proved difficult–until now. A group of Chinese researchers think they’ve come up with a blueprint for an “Artificial Inorganic Leaf” (AIL) that can produce hydrogen fuel using only sunlight and water. The “leaf” is still in its very early design stages, but if scientists can create a working prototype, the world may finally see a cost-effective method of hydrogen fuel production.
Scientists from the State Key Lab of Matrix Composites at China’s Shanghai Jiaotong University designed the AIL blueprint using biomimicry. By using spectroscopic techniques to study leaves of Anemone vitifolia, a plant native to China, scientists gained a better understanding of how to focus and guide solar energy into light-harvesting sections of the leaf. Plus, they learned more about the macro- and microstructures of plants’ photocatalysts. By infiltrating leaves with titanium dioxide (a photocatalyst) and platinum, researchers believe they’ve created a design for a fully functioning AIL.
Creating hydrogen fuel means splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen (electrolysis). While scientists have achieved this feat before, making hydrogen fuel has been exceedingly expensive, so it wouldn’t really be practical when compared to powering cars with gasoline or electricity. But by using sunlight with the AIL, scientists may finally create a cheap way to produce hydrogen fuel. Unlike traditional cars, which spew tons of greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen-powered vehicles emit only water vapor.