Mar 302010

Artificial Leaf Design

An artificial leaf that captures solar energy and uses it efficiently to change water into hydrogen fuel

Producing an artificial leaf capable of harnessing Mother Nature’s ability to produce energy from sunlight and water via photosynthesis has been a long-sought goal for researchers aspiring to provide an environmentally-friendly way to free to world of its dependence on coal, oil, and other carbon-producing fuel sources. Now a group of Chinese scientists has presented a design strategy based on the chemistry and biology of natural leaves that could lead to working prototypes of an artificial leaf that captures solar energy and uses it efficiently to change water into hydrogen fuel.

The structure of green leaves provides them with an extremely high light-harvesting efficiency. Within their architecture are structures responsible for focusing and guiding solar energy into the light-harvesting sections of the leaf, and other functions.

For this reason the scientists from State Key Lab of Matrix Composites at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Shanghai, China, decided to mimic that natural design in the development of a blueprint for artificial leaf-like structures. It led them to their recipe for the “Artificial Inorganic Leaf” (AIL), based on the natural leaf and titanium dioxide (TiO2) – a chemical already recognized as a photocatalyst for hydrogen production.

The scientists first infiltrated the leaves of Anemone vitifolia – a plant native to China – with titanium dioxide in a two-step process. Using advanced spectroscopic techniques, the scientists were then able to confirm that the structural features in the leaf favorable for light harvesting were replicated in the new TiO2 structure. They found the AIL to be eight times more active for hydrogen production than TiO2 that had not been “biotemplated” in that fashion. AILs also are more than three times as active as commercial photo-catalysts.

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