Artificial leaf could revolutionize energy industry – Aussie scientists

© Toby Melville
An artificial leaf may soon turn the whole energy industry upside-down, providing cars, houses and even whole cities with a new, but well-known type of energy, Australian scientists say.

Researches from Monash University School of Chemistry, Victoria, announced they have designed a machine that uses hydrogen as a fuel source. The mechanism is based on the process of photosynthesis that turns sunlight into energy in plants.

Professor Doug MacFarlane, head of the research team, is sure there’s nothing more perfect than nature and that applies to the process of photosynthesis as well.

"We have to learn as much as we can from photosynthesis, which is what goes on in leafy plants, because that's where most of our energy comes from in terms of fossil fuels or current kinds of carbon materials that we use either as food or fuel," ABC News reported MacFarlane as saying.

READ MORE: Solar panels can power the world – MIT study

MacFarlane believes that receiving energy from fuels or carbon is ineffective, unlike the way nature produces it. He intends to study the algorithm of changing sunlight into pure energy in a leaf and after the process is disclosed, the new type of energy will cover all the needs for energy people have.

"If we can learn what plants do with sunlight and use it to make carbon compounds, then we can potentially make artificially produced fuels for all of the reasons we need fuels currently," MacFarlane said.

READ MORE: Water-energy crisis threatens earth’s future - UN

In previous research, only expensive and rare metals have been used as artificial catalysts, but MacFarlane and his colleagues tried nickel and succeeded. They managed to extract hydrogen from water and say it didn’t cost a fortune.

"So nickel is a rather ordinary catalyst in many respects expect for one thing, which is that it's cheap,” MacFaralane said.
"So it's an ideal choice purely and simply because of the cost."

However, the devices using that kind energy are still very expensive to build and maintain, so “the efficiency in terms of producing fuel that it achieves has to be fairly high to make it worthwhile."

While the first tests showed 18 percent efficiency, that number has now gone up to 22.4 percent, with only 10 percent more efficiency needed.

The technology may soon be introduced to houses and then after a couple of years switch to fuel stations, Monash University’s researchers say.

Professor Thomas Faunce, from the Australian National University, an ardent supporter of the artificial photosynthesis technology, has gone further and already held two global conferences on the subject.

A breakthrough in this field will revolutionize the whole energy industry, he claims. The technology if mastered will most probably help humankind cope with climate change and other global problems, he says.

READ MORE: UK to run out of oil, gas and coal in five years – report

"If we can convert all the human-made structures on the surface of the Earth, every road and house and bridge into a structure that does photosynthesis better than plants, then we can take the pressure off nature and we can have distributed food and fuel across the planet," ABC News quoted Faunce as saying.

But an obstacle threatening this bright future could well be the existing energy industry, in particular the carbon-intensive industries such as coal and oil, which obviously won’t give up their vastly profitable infrastructure without a fight.