Artificial Leaf

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Nov 30 2011, 06:02am hrs
Poor Barack Obama is getting flak from both sides of the green divide these days. On the one hand, one of the presidential contenders lined up to take him on at next years elections derides global warming as a hoax, and many decry the $535mn federal loan guarantee given to solar panel company Solyndra before it went bust as a symbol of endemic government waste. On the other hand, his lack of leadership is also blamed for the diplomatic stalemate over a global climate treaty so manifest at Durban today. Thankfully, beyond the realm of crisis at the level of grand narratives, science is nurturing many promising experiments and many of these are actually government-funded. Here we highlight a solar project funded by the Department of Energys Advanced Research Projects Agency, which, in turn, was created with funding from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act in 2009.

At MIT, Daniel G Noceras team is working on an artificial leaf. The concept is not new, as plants ability to absorb sunlight and produce energy has long been an obviously alluring model for power generation. Photovoltaic solar panels can already transform sunlight into electricity, but the search is on for cheaper catalysts and storage/transmission. Its this that Noceras team is seeking to deliver via playing card-sized silicon chips that feature (cheaper) cobalt and nickel catalysts on either side, which when dipped into water and exposed to light split water into oxygen and hydrogen that are easier to store and particularity practical for off-grid locations. This leaf has operated continuously for 45 hours in laboratory conditions. At this months Society for Biological Engineerings inaugural conference on electrofuels research, Nocera said he expects this device to be off the ground and running within four years. The Tatas have already signed on. This is just one of the many technologies that are slogging away to exponentially push down solar energy prices in the coming yearsat its most competitive, solar power is already available for $120-140 per mwh as compared to $70-90 for gas-fired power.