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Coming Attractions

Artificial Leaf

Daniel Nocera

For decades, scientists have attempted to replicate natural photosynthesis in an artificial plant leaf and create fuels directly from the atmosphere, powered by sunlight. The inspiration is obvious: Almost all energy comes from the sun, and most of that comes from photosynthesis.

Imagine if you could make fuel from water and carbon dioxide, wherever you and the water reside. That is the goal of the artificial leaf project, founded by Daniel Nocera, a Harvard professor of energy science. Throughout his career, Nocera has been determined to invent an energy source and technology accessible and affordable to all.

In June 2016, Nocera and his colleague Pamela Silver announced that they had successfully created energy-dense fuel by combining solar energy, water, and carbon dioxide. First, a solar-electric current runs through a cobalt-phosphorus catalyst to break water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, an engineered bacteria (Ralstonia eutropha) consumes the hydrogen, along with carbon dioxide, and synthesizes fuel. When fed pure carbon dioxide, the process is ten times more efficient than photosynthesis.

This breakthrough is a giant step toward the goal of inexpensive energy made with sunshine, water, air…and bacteria. Nocera wants to develop the technology in India, where distributed renewables could have an outsized impact.

Technical summaries for each solution will be available May 1, 2017.

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