Harvard’s new artificial leaf converts sunlight into fuel with groundbreaking efficiency


Harvard University’s Daniel Nocera is a busy man. Last week, we reported on his announcement of a superbug that consumes carbon dioxide and creates fuel, a major development in energy technology. Now, the news is out that the “bionic leaf 2.0” is ready, a next-generation energy system that could eventually help keep more fossil fuels in the ground.

Nocera led the team that, in 2011, first developed an artificial leaf that mimicked the natural process of photosynthesis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be harvested for fuel. Now, with the help of Pamela Silver, Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, an updated version of the bionic leaf blows its predecessors out of the water. The latest iteration doesn’t stop at splitting water molecules; it takes the process one step further by converting hydrogen into usable liquid fuel, with a little help from the superbug we reported on last week.

Related: Harvard chemist engineers a superbug that converts inhaled CO2 into fuel

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Nocera said in a statement. “Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature… If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing. It takes sunlight, water, and air—and then look at a tree. That’s exactly what we did, but we do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel.”

The paper on the new bionic leaf, whose lead authors include postdoctoral fellow Chong Liu and graduate student Brendan Colón, was published last week in the journal Science.

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