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Imitating the Power of Nature

No matter how far into the future technology takes us, mankind has always been in awe of Nature.

Modern computers and electronic devices may give us ideas and stimulate our imagination but it is always from Nature that we derive our greatest inspiration.

Man built aircrafts and ships because we longed to conquer the air and the sea, like the creatures that inhabited those foreign landscapes.

Solar energy is no exception. The Sun is a part of nature and we have always acknowledged its power and centrality to our own existence. The process of photosynthesis by which abundant solar energy is used to drive the entire planet is truly the mother of all solar cells.

In several ways the functions of solar cell are similar to nature’s photosynthesis; both convert the sun’s light to something useful – food by one and useful energy or fuel by the other. While electron transition helps to generate power in solar cells, chloroplasts are used for energy conversion in a leaf.

No matter how good the human design is, nature outperforms us. Solar cells can trap much less light than the average plant and are only 20% efficient, compared to photosynthesis. This makes a huge difference because the energy from sun is about 90 petawatts, and we can only capture about 0.06% of that.

Researchers all over the world are trying to mimic nature, to improve both the efficiency and energy storage of solar cells. As solar is likely to become a major energy source of the future Daniel G Nocera, Professor of Energy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has made significant progress in this field.

His team has designed an artificial leaf for energy trapping and storage. The card-sized artificial leaf prototype absorbed significant light in trials and it resulted in water molecules being split into hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms. When this prototype was submerged in a beaker containing water, hydrogen gas was released and this could be used for generating electricity.

The prototype is made entirely of abundantly available, inexpensive materials like silicon, cobalt and nickel. The artificial leaf is made of silicon Nano sheet, the cobalt based catalyst bonded on one side releases oxygen. The other side of the leaf is coated with a layer of a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy, which releases hydrogen when introduced in water.

This new device is not yet ready for commercial distribution as the systems for collecting, storing and using these gases are still in developmental stage.

Once it is commercialized, people can install the leaves on their roof tops to produce oxygen and hydrogen and store them, in order to convert into electricity whenever required. These are far more effective, efficient and cheaper than traditional solar cells.

Artificial Leaf

Image source: www.news.yahoo.com

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