Getting Energy from a Silicon Leaf

A silicon “leaf” that mimics photosynthesis could open the possibility of an entirely new source of cheap and abundant electricity. MIT researchers say they’ve developed an advanced solar cell the size of a playing card; when floated in even muddy water under direct sunlight, it splits H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, which can then be transferred to fuel cells that produce an electric current.

Lead researcher Daniel Nocera tells Wired that a single artificial leaf and a gallon of water could produce a day’s worth of electricity for a household in the developing world. There have been previous attempts to create artificial leaves, but they have often depended on expensive chemicals and proved difficult to sustain for long periods. What makes Nocera’s version different—and scalable—is that it uses inexpensive materials and can operate for at least 45 hours straight.

An Indian company has already signed a development deal, and a commercial application may be ready in the next three to five years. Nocera is convinced his leaf can bring affordable electricity to communities without access to power grids. “Our goal is to make each home its own power station,” he says. And we say, more power to you! - As seen in The Week