Words by Smiley Team
Nature can offer some great solutions to the challenges we face. As a case in point, researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered how to replicate the ability of leaves to create sustenance out of almost nothing.
Through an intricately designed ‘artificial leaf', they've found a way to produce a widely-used gas that we currently source from finite and environmentally destructive fossil fuels. All it requires is sunlight, carbon dioxide and water.
They believe that their discovery could eventually lead to the production of a sustainable alternative to petrol. While solar panels are widely accepted, this new solar technology offers a groundbreaking way to convert the sun’s rays into gas, known as syngas.
Professor Erwin Reisner, lead researcher on the project explained: "You may not have heard of syngas itself but every day, you consume products that were created using it.”
The devices consist of two light absorbers, modelled on plant molecules, and a catalyst of cobalt, which is naturally abundant. It is plunged underwater to produce oxygen and convert carbon dioxide and water into syngas.
While most syngas is produced by combustion which results in carbon emissions, the artificial leaves will make the process more sustainable and carbon-free.
“Being able to produce it sustainably would be a critical step in closing the global carbon cycle," Erwin added.
He believes that the development of such synthetic petrol is vital to satisfy global demand, especially to make heavy transport, shipping and aviation more sustainable.
What’s more, the leaves require very little light to function efficiently, transforming the sun’s rays into gas even on overcast days.
"This means you are not limited to using this technology just in warm countries, or only operating the process during the summer months," said PhD student Virgil Andrei, also working on the project.
"You could use it from dawn till dusk, anywhere in the world."
DONATE: To support a charity tackling air pollution and global emissions, donate to Clean Air Task Force.