What if there was a way we could emulate how plants create their energy — and use it to sustainably power our world? Well, researchers have now developed a prototype of an ultra-thin device with the potential to do just that. The team from the University of Cambridge described a floating solar “leaf,” which uses light from the sun and water to create clean fuel!
How Do These Solar Leaves Work?
These artificial leaves work similarly to plant leaves, however, instead of sugars, they are producing useful chemicals, said Virgil Andrei, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and one of the study’s coauthors.
The leaves aren’t solar panels, which create electricity using solar energy. Rather, this device uses sunlight to produce a chemical reaction to create the components needed for liquid fuel. The leaves mimic the photosynthetic activity of plants using two kinds of fuel cells made from lead perovskite, a solar cell, to produce syngas. Synthesis gas, or ‘syngas’, is made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide molecules, and can actually be used as a form of fuel itself! There’s hope that syngas could replace other, dirtier fuels in processes like aviation and car engines, which would be a major step forward for sustainable energy.
Image: University of Cambridge
Could These Solar Leaves Operate On A Large Scale?
The team at Cambridge had a previous prototype of the leaf in 2019, however it was too large and bulky, confining its use.
“Most [artificial leaf] prototypes are quite complex, and can only produce fuels on a small, laboratory scale,” Andrei said. “We wanted to redesign the leaf structure, in order to make them compatible with scalable fabrication methods and materials, and for real-world applications. So, we trimmed down the device weight. They became so light that they were able to float on water, similar to lotus leaves.” This opens up new ways for the artificial leaves to be used.
Since they’re small and light enough to float, they could eventually operate on a large scale at sea to generate a sustainable alternative to petrol, without taking up land space.
Image: Virgil Andrei
The Incredible Possibilities of Solar Fuel For Our Planet
Solar farms have become popular for electricity production; we envision similar farms for fuel synthesis.
“These leaves could be assembled into floating farms, which could be placed on lakes, rivers, and shorelines,” said Andrei. “The lightweight, flexible leaves could be easily transported to remote settlements (e.g. islands), enabling decentralised fuel production. Leaves could make further use of polluted waters like mining lakes, or near ports. Moreover, they could prevent moisture evaporation from irrigation canals, which is very topical when considering the current droughts.”
Andrei went on to say that “In theory, you could roll up these devices and put them almost anywhere, in almost any country, which would also help with energy security.” How cool is that?!
What do you think about these floating solar leaves? We love that this technology was inspired by photosynthesis, and we hope to see these floating solar leaves being used on a large scale in the future! This innovation truly has major potential to be applied in many areas. Could solar fuel be our best solution for clean energy yet to come?
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