Scientists have produced a bionic leaf imitating the natural process of photosynthesis that works in concert with a bacterial species to manufacture a biofuel known as isopropanol.
In a world where the hunger for fuel remains insatiable, research to finding alternative sources of energy is perhaps being funded to a larger extent than endeavours to quench the need for food of famine-stricken populations. One such research work, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), entails a bionic leaf that has been designed to convert solar energy to liquid fuel, combined with a bacterial species to ultimately generate the desired fuel.
The artificial leaf mimics the natural one, producing the two gases, oxygen and hydrogen. The bacterium Ralstonia eutropha is then made to modify the hydrogen into protons and electrons which are incorporated by carbon dioxide molecules – the latter are part of the reproductive cycle of the microorganism – to manufacture a biofuel known as isopropanol. The bacterium uses solar energy to create the biofuel, thereby combining biology and artificial technology.
Creating an artificial leaf has not been easy. It took ten years for scientists to get it right. The process required specific catalysts that would also work well for the conditions needed by the bacteria.
The bionic leaf has 1 % efficiency rate at manufacturing the biofuel – the same rate at which photosynthesis harvests sunlight to synthesise biomass. But, the aim of the scientists is to reach 5 % efficiency.
Such solar cells are expected to fuel vehicles and households in the future.