Artificial Leaf May Lead to Solar-Based Liquid Fuels

Solar Forest and Artificial Leaves

Imagine “artificial leaves” that replicate a real leaf’s chemical magic by carrying out  photosynthesisin a fashion that converts sunlight and water into liquid fuels likemethanol.  This vision is closer than many people may realize,according to a newly-available report on solar energy called “Powering the World with Sunlight.”

“The sun provides more energy to the Earth in an hour than the worldconsumes in a year,” the report concludes. “Compare that single hour tothe one million years required for the Earth to accumulate the sameamount of energy in the form of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are not asustainable resource, and we must break our dependence on them. Solarpower is among the most promising alternatives.”

The report was all the rage at the 1st Annual  Chemical Sciences and Society Symposium,which took place in Germany this past summer and included chemists fromChina, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.  Thesymposium focused on four main topics:

  1. Mimicking photosynthesis using synthetic materials such as the “ artificial leaf
  2. Production and use of biofuels as a form of stored solar energy
  3. Developing innovative, more efficient solar cells
  4. Storage and distribution of solar energy

The scientists pointed out during the meeting that plants use solarenergy when they capture and convert sunlight into chemical fuelthrough photosynthesis. The process involves the conversion of waterand carbon dioxide into sugars as well as oxygen and hydrogen.Scientists have been successful in mimicking this fuel-making process,called artificial photosynthesis, but now must finds ways of doing soin ways that can be used commercially.

Participants described progress toward this goal and the scientificchallenges that must be met before solar can be a viable alternative tofossil fuels.  The ultimate goal of artificial photosynthesis is toproduce a liquid fuel, such as methanol, or “wood alcohol.” Achievingthis goal would fulfil the vision of creating an “artificial leaf” thatnot only splits water but uses the reaction products to create a moreusable fuel, similar to what leaves do.

“Building on the success of this first symposium, we’re now gearingup for the future, convening top chemical scientists to address other,equally pressing global challenges,” said Julie Callahan of the ACSOffice of International Activities and principal investigator on theproject.

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