Scientists recently developed a technology that imitates the way leaves produce energy from sunlight. They call it the “bionic leaf.”

bionic leaf graphic

The so-called leaf is a small device about the size of a credit card and includes a solar panel. When placed in water, it uses energy from sunlight to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, just like a real plant does during photosynthesis.

But producing hydrogen is not the same as producing usable energy.

NOCERA: “If I gave you hydrogen, what would you do with it?”

That’s Harvard professor Daniel Nocera.

Daniel Nocera
Daniel Nocera

NOCERA: “I like to say the only thing you’ll do with it is blow up balloons.”

So, in addition to the bionic leaf, Nocera and his team engineered a specialized bacteria. The bacteria combines CO2 from the atmosphere with the hydrogen produced by the leaf in order to make a liquid fuel that can be used in vehicles.

The process is carbon-neutral – meaning it removes as much carbon pollution from the atmosphere as it releases.

Harvard prof catches up with nature, invents an artificial 'leaf' that creates hydrogen from sunlight. Click To Tweet

Nocera says this technology will be most useful where there is not already existing energy infrastructure. So he plans to give it to developing countries, where he hopes they will take a leaf from the book of nature to power their future.

Reporting credit: Justin Bull/ChavoBart Digital Media.
Leaf image: Courtesy of Jessica Polka/Silver Lab.

More Resources
Nocera Lab website
Part microbe, part machine: Bionic leaf sucks up carbon dioxide as it makes liquid fuel

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