Tiny Tech #36: An Artificial Leaf?

Today from the world of Tiny Tech:

To satisfy our future need for energy, it will be increasingly important to use renewable energy sources, such as sunlight. Plants have been using sunlight as an energy source for millions of years. In a process called photosynthesis, plants use the sun’s energy to make cellulose and other chemicals they need. For several decades, scientists have been studying “artificial leaves” that mimic how plants capture the energy of sunlight.

One type of artificial leaf consists of a thin square of silicon covered with chemical catalysts such as cobalt oxide. When the square is immersed in water and exposed to light, one side converts water to hydrogen (which is a fuel), and the other converts water to oxygen. Scientists have found that roughening the surface of that leaf on the nanoscale makes it work even in dirty water. However, even the best artificial leaves capture only about 10% of the energy of sunlight, although that's still an improvement on the 1% efficiency that plants achieve.

The race is still on to make artificial leaves that are cheap, efficient, and long lasting. If these challenges can be solved, however, society might have the energy it needs in the future ... by turning over a new leaf.

Tiny Tech is made possible by the National Science Foundation and WUFT.  To learn more about Tiny Tech, go to tinytechradio.org.

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