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Harvard’s Bionic Leaf Converts Solar Energy Into Liquid Fuel

Bionic Leaf

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have discovered a means through which the most renewable energy source, solar, can be converted into liquid fuel.

The study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), revealed how researchers concocted a “bionic leaf” which uses sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. Then, the real star of the show comes into play: a lab-crafted bacterium known as Ralstonia eutropha. The bacteria is used to convert the hydrogen into a liquid fuel type known as isopropanol in a process which combines hydrogen with carbon dioxide.

Prior to the recent innovations of the researchers behind the study, solar energy could be converted into hydrogen through the use of photovoltaic cells, as the hydrogen can be stored in the fuel cells for future use, however, Time notes that hydrogen has failed to make headway as an energy source as the world’s infrastructure is designed to handle liquid fuels like the isopropanol created by the study’s researchers.

One of the researchers and co-author of the study, Pamela Silva, said that the bionic leaf provides “a proof of concept” for harvesting solar energy and storing it as liquid fuel. Silver works in Harvard Medical School’s Biochemistry and Systems Biology department as a professor. She went on to say that the study proves they’re working hard to make things more convenient.

The study’s senior author and professor of Energy at Harvard, Daniel Nocera, said that the artificial leaf his team created is highly dependent on the catalyst composed of materials which are not only readily available, but don’t cost a fortune. Daniel explained that while we’re at nearly “1 percent efficiency rate of converting sunlight into isopropanol,” they were hoping to soon ramp the efficiency rate up to 5 percent.

We’re almost at a 1 percent efficiency rate of converting sunlight into isopropanol (…) There have been 2.6 billion years of evolution, and Pam and I working together a year and a half have already achieved the efficiency of photosynthesis.

Are you excited for what the energy providing possibilities this latest breakthrough might unlock?

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