Researchers Have Developed New Solar-Powered Leaves That Could Change How We Fuel Vehicles

Scientists at Cambridge University have developed an innovative type of foliage that has the ability to produce clean fuel for vehicles. Surprisingly, these “leaves” are not found on trees.

These artificial leaves, created in a laboratory and roughly the size of a thumbnail, can convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into energy, just like real leaves. They produce ethanol and propanol, which are cleaner and more environmentally friendly fuels compared to regular gasoline, as described in a report by SciTechDaily. The researchers have been working on this technology since 2019, as highlighted in a BBC article.

“[W]e’ve been able to produce a practical liquid fuel just using the power of the sun. It’s an exciting advance that opens up whole new avenues in our work,” Cambridge chemistry professor Dr. Motiar Rahaman said in the SciTechDaily report.

Similar to natural leaves, these artificial ones utilize photosynthesis to generate energy. According to SciTechDaily, the scientists believe that these renewable liquid fuels could be used to power vehicles with zero carbon emissions, ensuring a clean transportation system.

Although ethanol is not a new concept for fuel, the United States Department of Energy reported that over 98% of gasoline in the U.S. contains biofuel, such as ethanol, to enhance its properties. Ethanol is considered a cleaner-burning additive for vehicle tanks.

The challenge lies in the fact that most ethanol is currently produced from corn. Approximately 45% of the 90 million acres of corn planted in the U.S. is used for ethanol production, according to federal statistics.

“Biofuels like ethanol are a controversial technology, not least because they take up agricultural land that could be used to grow food instead,” Professor Erwin Reisner, who led Cambridge’s artificial leaf research, told SciTechDaily.

However, the artificial leaf developed by the Cambridge University team aims to replace corn partially with renewable sunlight. If successfully scaled up, this concept could eliminate the need to harvest vast amounts of crops for fuel production.

The artificial leaf consists of a small, square, green “photoanode” on its surface, responsible for capturing sunlight. A more intricate “photoreactor” system, comprising connected cylinders, is depicted in an image shared by SciTechDaily. Once exposed to sunlight, the process of energy generation begins.

“Shining sunlight on the artificial leaves and getting liquid fuel from carbon dioxide and water is an amazing bit of chemistry,” Rahaman said to SciTechDaily.

While further research is still required, the Cambridge experts have successfully demonstrated the feasibility of the concept, according to SciTechDaily. The next step involves developing leaves that can efficiently produce fuel on a large scale.

“Even though there’s still work to be done, we’ve shown what these artificial leaves are capable of doing,” Reisner said in the SciTechDaily report. “It’s important to show that we can go beyond the simplest molecules and make things that are directly useful as we transition away from fossil fuels.”

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