Earlier this year, MIT professor Daniel Nocera announced that he’d developed an artificial leaf with ten times the photosynthetic prowess of the real thing. Left to float in a pool of water, the leaf uses sunlight to break its host puddle down into hydrogen and oxygen, which are then stored in a fuel cell, ready to produce electricity. Nocera claims that just a single gallon of water could power a home in a developing country for a full day.
The concept of mimicking nature has been around for a long time, and it’s desirable for many reasons. Nature is a lot more efficient than we tend to be – where we cut and melt to build things, nature’s all about additive manufacturing. Where we burn finite, dirty substances to generate electricity, nature parked a giant flaming thermonuclear reactor less than a hundred million miles away and gets all its power from that. Plus, nature tends to look nicer out your window than, say, a cellphone tower or a smokestack.
While Nocera’s leaf is, conceptually, scarcely more than a bud, it does sort of call to the imagination, doesn’t it? What if the power plant of the future were a forest of artificial leaves, slurping in sunlight, breaking down water, and storing the components away in fuel cells nestled in the trunks of artificial trees? One day soon kids might go to play not in the park, but at the generator substation – and never know the difference between the two.
Indian corporation Tata has already signed on with Nocera to build a prototype power plant using the artificial leaf, which is made of cheap and readily available materials and likely to grow in efficiency as the design is further perfected.