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“Artificial Leaf” Produces Energy from Dirty Water, Can Self-Heal

The world’s first practical “artificial leaf”, capable of producing clean energy from dirty water, has gained a new feature – that of being able to heal itself of any damage that occurs during energy production.

The artificial leaf mimics the ability of real leaves to produce energy from sunlight and water, but this version breaks water down into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be collected and used as fuel to generate electricity in fuel cells.

The leaf is a catalyst-coated wafer of silicon that is said to be able to turn one quart of drinking water into 100 watts of electricity 24 hours a day, and with the new refinements to it, can be used with dirty water.

The previous version required pure water to work, because bacteria in the water eventually formed biofilms on the surface of the leaf, which shut it down.

“Self-healing enables the artificial leaf to run on the impure, bacteria-contaminated water found in nature. We figured out a way to tweak the conditions so that part of the catalyst falls apart, denying bacteria the smooth surface needed to form a biofilm. Then the catalyst can heal and re-assemble.” – Daniel G. Nocera, Ph.D.

In many parts of the world, both energy and water are hard to come by, and solutions for providing them tend to be either expensive, complicated, or both. But the development of this artificial leaf may be the breakthrough necessary for “personal energy” devices that are appropriate for local conditions and economics.

“Earlier devices used rare, costly metals and other materials, involved complicated wiring and were expensive to manufacture. But Nocera’s artificial leaf uses less-expensive materials and incorporates a design — a so-called “buried junction” — that is simple and would be inexpensive to mass produce. And the leaf has advantages over solar panels, which are costly and produce energy only during daylight hours. The leaf’s hydrogen and oxygen, in contrast, can be stored and used at night.” – ACS

One of the team’s priorities for further development of the artificial leaf is finding ways to integrate it with technology that can convert the hydrogen into a liquid fuel to run traditional portable electric generators or perhaps even cars.

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