“Just as fossil fuels from conventional sources are finite and are becoming depleted, those from difficult sources will also run out. If we put all our energy and resources into continued fossil fuel extraction, we will have lost an opportunity to have invested in renewable energy.” – David Suzuki
Two of the most powerful warriors in the fight against global warming are solar and wind energy—two sources of energy that are helping us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. There is a second way to ensure that countries achieve their Paris 15 agreement goals, however, though this new technology has only just now made itself known: artificial leaves. Scientists at Cambridge University have developed artificial “leaves,” which were recently tested on the River Cam in and around Cambridge. These leaves do the unthinkable—create a “green” version of gas or diesel that could soon become a part of our daily lives.
A Novel Net-Zero Green Fuel
The floating artificial leaves can turn sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into synthetic fuel. The scientists who have developed them foresee their use on a grand scale to power ships, cars, and other machines and equipment. This is positive not only from the point of view of green transport, but also because it can help to lower the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) we are exposed to on a daily basis. VOCs hailing from motor vehicles are one of the main sources of air pollution in most cities. Acetone, hexanal, toluene and p-xylene are some of the most prevalent of these chemicals, which is bad news both for global warming and human health. VOCs affect our health in many ways, causing issues like irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, as well as respiratory problems, headaches and nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. The floating leaves would actually be 10 times more efficient than real leaves as they not only convert carbon dioxide but also produce cleaner, VOC-free energy.
How Do Artificial Leaves Work?
The Cambridge University-developed leaves work just as plants do, as they absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into the fuel they need to survive. The carbon is converted into carbohydrates and stored, while the oxygen is released back into the atmosphere, The difference between real and artificial leaves is that the floating ones do not produce carbohydrates the way real plants do. Instead, they produce carbon monoxide to create cleaner fuels. The artificial leaf system also produces an oxygen gas that is released into the atmosphere. The researchers have stated that it can be used both on an industry-level scale (for instance, at a power plant) and on a smaller case (for instance, on the roof of a family home).
What Do the Leaves Look Like?
The leaves are cube-shaped and they have an acrylic covering They contain artificial stomata, which play the role that the pores in leaves do. In plants, the stomata serve as portals that control gas exchange for photosynthesis. One of their most important functions is the exchange of negatively charged ions through a membrane. The Cambridge team is not the first to experiment with the use of artificial leaves, but its prototype has already been lab-tested and proven to function in real-world conditions. Another thing that makes this leaf type special is the type of CO2 it works with. Most artificial leaves rely on pure CO2, which is similar to the CO2 found in carbonated water. This prototype, on the contrary, works with diluted CO2, which is similar to that found in the atmosphere. While it is unknown whether the technology will work on a large scale, it certainly is a step in the right direction. Currently, most nations are falling extremely short of their Paris 15 goals. What’s more, the world clearly does not have the capacity to deal with the emissions it is currently producing.
The artificial leaves developed at Cambridge University may still be at the prototype stage, but they can be considered a major step forward when it comes to achieving climate change goals and averting the escalating problem of emissions. They offer the hope of a vibrant future in which sustainability and clean energy harmoniously coexist. Although the leaves have been proven to be efficient, further testing is required to understand the scale at which they can be used.