Taking inspiration from photosynthesis, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has developed floating ‘artificial leaves’ that generate clean fuels from sunlight and water, and could eventually operate on a large scale at sea.
Since the low-cost, ultra-thin, flexible and autonomous devices are light enough to float, they could be used to generate a sustainable alternative to petrol without taking up space on land. Outdoor tests on the River Cam showed that they can convert sunlight into fuels as efficiently as plant leaves.
If scaled up, the artificial leaves could be deployed in polluted waterways, ports or even at sea, and could help reduce the global shipping industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.
In 2019, Professor Erwin Reisner’s research group in Cambridge developed an artificial leaf that makes syngas – a key intermediate in the production of many chemicals and pharmaceuticals – from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. The prototype generated fuel by combining two light absorbers with suitable catalysts. However, it incorporated thick glass substrates and moisture-protective coatings, which made the device bulky.
‘Artificial leaves could substantially lower the cost of sustainable fuel production, but since they’re both heavy and fragile, they’re difficult to produce at scale and transport,’ said Virgil Andrei from the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry.
‘We wanted to see how far we can trim down the materials these devices use, while not affecting their performance,’ said Reisner. ‘If we can trim the materials down far enough that they’re light enough to float, then it opens up whole new ways that these artificial leaves could be used.’
For the new version of the artificial leaf, the researchers took inspiration from the electronics industry, where miniaturisation techniques have led to the creation of smartphones and flexible displays, revolutionising the field.
The challenge was finding a way to deposit light-absorbers onto lightweight substrates and protect them against water infiltration. To overcome these challenges, the team used thin-film metal oxides and materials known as perovskites, which can be coated onto flexible plastic and metal foils. The devices were covered with micrometre-thin, water-repellent carbon-based layers that prevented moisture degradation. They ended up with a device that not only works, but also looks like a real leaf.
‘This study demonstrates that artificial leaves are compatible with modern fabrication techniques, representing an early step towards the automation and up-scaling of solar-fuel production,’ said Andrei. ‘These leaves combine the advantages of most solar-fuel technologies, as they achieve the low weight of powder suspensions and the high performance of wired systems.’
Tests of the new artificial leaves showed that they can split water into hydrogen and oxygen, or reduce CO2 to syngas. While additional improvements will need to be made before the leaves are ready for commercial applications, the researchers say that this development opens up whole new avenues in their work.
‘Solar farms have become popular for electricity production; we envision similar farms for fuel synthesis,’ said Andrei. ‘These could supply coastal settlements or remote islands, cover industrial ponds or avoid water evaporation from irrigation canals.’
‘Many renewable-energy technologies, including solar-fuel technologies, can take up large amounts of space on land, so moving production to open water would mean that clean energy and land use aren’t competing with one another,’ said Reisner. ‘In theory, you could roll up these devices and put them almost anywhere, in almost any country, which would also help with energy security.’
The research has been published in Nature.