It won’t be wrong to consider the plants to be miniature powerhouses that intake sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and convert them into energy. Human beings have been trying to mimic this amazing natural process by making use of artificial leaves. However, the results were never satisfying. That is up until the team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago came up with this design of artificial leaf. It is capable of working in real-life conditions and can suck carbon dioxide out of the air and produce oxygen and synthetic fuels.
The very first artificial leaves were a product from work done in Harvard back in 2011. They made use of sunlight for splitting water into harvestable oxygen and hydrogen gas. The various iterations that have been introduced even since have relied on more or less similar technologies for the creation of liquid fuels, drugs, electricity, and fertilizers. As of right now, the most promising artificial leaves that do a good enough job of absorbing carbon dioxide do so only under lab conditions.
Meenesh Sing, the corresponding author of the study, said, ‘So far, all designs for artificial leaves that have been tested in the lab use carbon dioxide from pressurized tanks. In order to implement successfully in the real world, these devices need to be able to draw carbon dioxide from much more dilute sources, such as air and flue gas, which is the gas given off by coal-burning power plants.’
The UIC researchers claim that their artificial leaf design is ready for real-world applications. The artificial leaf is actually quite simple – a regular old artificial photosynthesis unit that has been wrapped in a new transparent capsule. The exterior layer is a semi-permeable membrane that has been created from quaternary ammonium resin and filled with water.
The working principle is that when sunrays make contact with the device, the water evaporates slowly from the pores and carbon dioxide gets sucked in from the outside. The gas is then converted into carbon monoxide thanks to the artificial photosynthesis unit located on the inside. The produced carbon monoxide can then be captured and used for multiple applications including the creation of synthetic fuels. Oxygen is also produced as a by-product of this process and can be released back into the atmosphere or collected for further use.
According to the researchers, their design is up to ten times more efficient as opposed to a natural leaf. In fact, if enough of such artificial leaves are put together, a decent amount of fuel can be generated while purifying the air surrounding the leaves.
Singh said, ‘By enveloping traditional artificial leaf technology inside this specialized membrane, the whole unit is able to function outside, like a natural leaf. Our conceptual design uses readily available materials and technology, that when combined can produce an artificial leaf that is ready to be deployed outside the lab where it can play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.’
The research has been published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.