Unfurling the “Bionic Leaf”: Spring Comes to the Artificial Photosynthesis Field

Unfurling the “Bionic Leaf”: Spring Comes to the Artificial Photosynthesis Field

spring leaf and mom nature

Now that Victoria Day, the traditional date in Southern Ontario that marks the end of the chances of frost, has passed, I’m allowing myself to get attached to the plants in my garden. And boy, are they (and their friends in the woods around us) really starting to do their thing!

While the happy spring plants that appear almost overnight can seem to be magic to winter-weary eyes, we all know they’re actually the result of a no less stunning scientific process: photosynthesis. Nature has perfected this energy transference system, and researchers have been striving to replicate it for our own purposes. Until now, we have had less-than-efficient results.

But a team out of Harvard University and Medical School has gotten the closest to true artificial photosynthesis yet, publishing their results in Science. They call their innovation the “bionic leaf,” and it uses solar energy to combine the components of split water molecules, and hydrogen-eating bacteria, into the kind of fuel useful to humans.

The design is an improvement on the previous version, which used the process to create isopropanol. But it did so at the expense of the bacteria that were central to the operation, when they were attacked by a byproduct of the catalyst used to produce their own dang hydrogen. (It’s not easy being bacteria!) The high voltages required to circumvent this problem rendered the process too inefficient for widespread use.

The new version, with its non-bacteria-toxic cobalt-phosphorus alloy catalyst, allows for lower voltages, increasing efficiency to a stunning 10%. (The most eager plants out there hit a rate of 1% efficiency.)

“‘The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist — biology can do chemistry we can’t do easily,” [Prof. Pamela Silver, one of the lead authors] said. ‘In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile.’”

Not only is this innovation just plain cool, it paves the way for fuel creation of the future: when we can finally untether ourselves from oil, and rely on the far more dependable nuclear generator in the sky for all our needs! The bionic “leaf” has it right: Mother Nature really does do it better.