Harvard Scientists Make Liquid Fuel Using “Bionic Leaf”
New developments yield higher efficiency than what’s found in natureby Jonathan Lopez, on
The cars of tomorrow may very well be powered by the sun, but not in the way you might think. Harvard researchers recently published a paper outlining a technology that utilizes solar energy to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen. Bacteria are then used to transform the hydrogen into liquid fuel, siphoning off carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process.
It’s called the “bionic leaf 2.0,” and it was co-developed by Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy at Harvard University, and Pamela Silver, the Elliot T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.
“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Nocera told the Harvard Gazette. “Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”
The first system used nickel-molybdenum-zinc as a catalyst in the creation of hydrogen. The alloy also created molecules that would destroy the fuel-creating bacteria, which meant the system was required to run at very high voltages, cutting into its efficiency. Conversely, the new system uses cobalt–phosphorous as a catalyst, which doesn’t create the bacteria-destroying molecules, allowing for lower voltages and higher efficiency.
How efficient? Try 10 percent, far surpassing the 1 percent seen in plants. That means it’s ready for consideration in commercial applications.
“It’s an important discovery – it says we can do better than photosynthesis. But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well,” Nocera said.
According to Silver, the system can also be used to create “any downstream carbon-based molecule,” making it extremely versatile. “The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist,” Silver said.
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Why It Matters
Let’s face it – energy rules our lives. From the air conditioning that’s keeping you cool, to the microwave that heats your lunch, to the screen that lets you read these words, energy is what keeps our concept of modern living running at full tilt. Transportation is certainly a major player in all this, and although I would argue that the auto industry is routinely blamed for contributing more than its fair share when it comes to the negative impacts of energy consumption, its ultimate impact is undeniable.
That said, developments like the “bionic leaf 2.0” give me a good deal of hope. The environmental blowback from the Industrial Revolution is starting to show its teeth, but I believe there is still a way to do all the things we want to do without sinking deeper into the maw of climate change.
Efficiency plays a key role. Here’s a great example – right now, you can go out and buy a tenth-generation Honda Civic and get upwards of 40 mpg on the highway from a naturally aspirated engine. It wasn’t that long ago you’d need a hybrid powerplant to get numbers like that – now, you don’t even need a turbo.
My point is this – have faith in technological progress, because it’s either that, or back to the caves. And I haven’t seen any caves with A/C.
Source: Harvard Gazette