Advances in Artificial ‘Solar Leaf’ Technology

I’d blogged years ago about an artificial leaf technology that was a potential step forward for energy production. Recently I caught a glimpse of an update on that solar research (thanks Matt!) and it got me thinking about energy production in general.

The aim of this particular research is to recreate the solar abilities of biological leaves and harness electricity from hydrogen through the use of a certain bacteria. It’s a technology that was announced back in 2011, and the progress that we’ve made is (to me) bittersweet. On one hand any successful research that makes a potentially valuable technology more effective is exciting. On the other hand, how much further could we be if alternatives like this were being actively explored and funded?

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I don’t doubt that money is spent on science, but time and again it seems the focus is on power — the authority kind — and not creation. If we make a major stride forward in science, like the splitting of the atom, those in the captain’s chair are more excited about how powerful a weapon it could be instead of what it could be used to build.

Power is good to an extent. After all, you worry less about bullies when you’re powerful, and you can avoid a lot of the horror that countries without it experience. But this ‘good’ is attained only by avoiding bad. There’s nothing innately good about having the biggest gun when the bullets aren’t flying.

We live on a planet that is 75% water, and we’re aware at least academically about how to harness that as a seemingly limitless energy source. It’s the most logical direction, and surely if there’s a hyper-advanced race observing us they are disappointed by the fact that greed and power deliberately turns aside alternatives like this in the name of maintaining the self-serving status quo. Is there any reason aside “because there’s a lot of money in it” to keep using something as expensive and toxic as oil, for example?

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Scientific progress is only slowed, not stopped, by the challenges of funding and public interest. Those out there driven to expand our understanding and make our existence more efficient or meaningful always seem to find a way forward, and the bright side of the solar leaf’s 7% efficiency rating is that actual plants tend to be around 1% efficient.

The technology may at this point be too expensive to create, store, and transport to be used on a large scale. However, in four years researchers have taken a big step forward in their understanding of photosynthesis, taking cues from the plants that have been doing it for millions of years. Look at anything we’ve built. The early models are clunky and eventually embarrassing years later as streamlined versions emerge, but it had to start somewhere.

There’s no telling when this will be effective enough for regular use, or if it will time out well to coincide with the Mars mission planned for 2024. But on a planet without the abundant oil of Earth, something like the solar leaf seems to fit right in on a world that will require the best of what humanity can produce to inhabit. Here’s hoping as it moves forward.

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