Energy Breakthrough: Floating Artificial Leaves Produce Fuel From Sunlight and Water | Science | New

Taking inspiration from natural photosynthetic sheets, the ultra-thin, flexible devices are the brainchild of chemist Dr. Virgil Andrei and his colleagues. The researchers tested their prototypes on the River Cam, close to iconic Cambridge locations such as the Bridge of Sighs, Wren Library and King’s College Chapel. They demonstrated that the devices can convert sunlight into fuel as efficiently as plant leaves in nature.

This is, according to the team, the first time that clean fuel has been generated on water.

They envision low-cost autonomous devices operating en masse at sea, in ports, and even on polluted waterways.

In this way, artificial leaves could produce a sustainable alternative to gasoline without taking up space on earth.

The devices could even help reduce the global shipping industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Currently, around 80% of global trade is transported in cargo ships powered by fossil fuels – but the sector has received little attention in discussions of the climate crisis.

Part of the problem is that the development of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power are not suitable for industries such as shipping, for which decarbonization is more difficult.

For several years, the Cambridge-based research group had been trying to tackle this problem by developing sustainable fuels produced using methods based on the principles of photosynthesis.

In 2019, the team succeeded in developing an artificial leaf capable of making so-called syngas – a key intermediate in the production of many different chemicals and pharmaceuticals – using only carbon dioxide, sunlight and water as ingredients.

This early concept generated fuel by combining two light absorbers with catalysts – but was let down by its thick glass substrates and moisture barrier coatings, leaving it rather bulky.

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For the new lightweight, floating design, the team took inspiration from miniaturization techniques used by the electronics industry to produce technologies as thin as smartphones and flexible displays.

To deposit light absorbers on lightweight substrates, the team used thin-film metal oxides and materials called perovskites that can be coated onto flexible plastic and metal sheets.

They then protected the sheets against water infiltration by covering them with micrometric layers of carbon.

Dr Andrei said: “This study demonstrates that artificial leaves are compatible with modern manufacturing techniques, which represents a first step towards automating and scaling up solar fuel production.

“These sheets combine the advantages of most solar fuel technologies, as they achieve the low weight of powder slurries and the high performance of wired systems.”

According to the researchers, improvements will be needed before their artificial leaves can be produced for commercial applications – but the latest prototype is already breaking new ground in their work.

Dr Andrei said: “Solar farms have become popular for power generation; we envision similar farms for fuel synthesis.

“These could supply coastal settlements, remote islands, cover industrial ponds or prevent water evaporation from irrigation canals.”

Professor Reisner concluded: “Many renewable energy technologies, including solar fuel technologies, can occupy large amounts of land space, so moving production to open water would mean that clean energy and land uses are not in competition.

“In theory, you could roll up these devices and put them almost anywhere, in almost any country, which would also help with energy security.”

The full results of the study have been published in the journal Nature.

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