Artificial leaf sucks carbon dioxide from the air and produces clean energy

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Scientists say they have created an “artificial leaf” that can transform carbon dioxide into liquid fuel using only sunlight. In creating the process, they were inspired by the photosynthesis process performed by plants as they transform carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose. Details about the artificial leaf process were published in the journal Nature Energy.

Artificial leaf produces methanol

Lead scientist Yimin Wu told The Canadian Press that the applications for their artificial leaf process are almost endless because any industry that produces carbon dioxide can use it. He said they tweaked the photosynthesis process used by plants so instead of glucose being made, it produces methanol, which can then be used in different ways, like as fuel for vehicles. The process also makes oxygen, just like natural photosynthesis.

Scientists have long been looking to converting carbon dioxide as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Wu said other attempts to convert carbon dioxide involved raising temperatures or using electricity to convert it. He also said both of these methods are inefficient and can’t be used on a large scale because they are cost prohibitive.

To create their artificial leaf, Wu and his team used an inexpensive red powder known as cuprous oxide, according to The Independent. Methanol can then be collected after heating the solution, making the water in it evaporate.

A chemical reaction occurs when four substances are combined with water: copper acetate, sodium dodecyl sulfate, sodium hydroxide and glucose. The reaction then creates power after the water is heated to a particular temperature and carbon dioxide is blown through it while white light is shone onto it.

Future applications

Wu told The Independent that their artificial leaf technology is bigger than natural photosynthesis as it as a solar-to-fuel efficiency of about 10%, compared to natural photosynthesis’ efficiency of 1%. He said the next thing to do would be to partner with companies in various industries to scale up the technology using a “system engineering of flow cell” to produce liquid fuels. He added that industry partners can help them develop even more efficient artificial leaves.

However, it will be several years before they can commercialize the process. Commercializing it will enable them to produce more and more ethanol using their process.

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