Artificial leaf mimics photosynthesis, converts solar into hydrogen

22 March 2016
By Jack Loughran
Mobile version
Share |
The artificial leaf is composed of five layers: silicon (black), silicon oxide (gray), an 'intermediate' layer (yellow) and the protective layer (brown)

The artificial leaf is composed of five layers: silicon (black), silicon oxide (gray), an 'intermediate' layer (yellow) and the protective layer (brown)

An ‘artificial leaf’ that converts sunlight directly into hydrogen to be used for energy production has been developed by a German team.

The leaf consists of a solar cell that is combined with further functional layers that act as electrodes and are coated with catalysts.

If the complex system of materials is submerged in water and illuminated, it starts to break down water molecules into their constituent parts.

The process converts 12 per cent of the solar energy into hydrogen which is an effective way to store solar energy in chemical form.

However, the team from the energy research centre at the research institute, Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, say there are still a number of problems to overcome.

Sufficient light needs to reach the solar cell in order to create the voltage for water splitting which is partly hindered by the additional layers of material.

In addition, the semiconductor materials that the solar cells are generally made of are unable to withstand the typically acidic conditions of the process for long periods of time.

The artificial leaf therefore needs a stable protective layer that has to be simultaneously transparent and conductive.

The team worked with samples of silicon, a semiconductor material that acts as a simple solar cell to produce a voltage when illuminated.

Materials scientist Anahita Azarpira, who worked on the project, prepared these samples in such a way that carbon-hydrogen chains on the surface of the silicon were formed.

"As a next step, I deposited nanoparticles of ruthenium dioxide, a catalyst," she explained.

This resulted in the formation of a conductive and stable polymeric layer only three to four nanometres thick.

The ruthenium dioxide particles in this new method allowed for the simple development of an effective organic protective layer which is normally very complicated to produce.

This allows the catalyst to do its normal job of accelerating the partitioning of water into oxygen and hydrogen.

The silicon electrode protected with this layer achieves solar-to-hydrogen efficiency of about 12 per cent but the team has also considered using a graphene layer.

Chinese researchers recently demonstrated another type of artificial leaf that is capable of removing toxic pollutants from waste water while scientists in 2013 showed off a self-healing leaf that can produce energy.

In November, E&T Magazine looked at a new eco-friendly type of energy production that artificially emulates the photosynthesis processes.

Latest Issue

E&T cover image 1607

"As the dust settles after the referendum result, we consider what happens next. We also look forward to an international summer of sport."

E&T jobs

  • Chair in Integrated Sensor Technology

    The University of Edinburgh
    • Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh

    The University of Edinburgh is one of the world’s top 20 institutions of higher education.....

    • Recruiter: The University of Edinburgh

    Apply for this job

  • Principal Electrical Engineer - Power

    BAE Systems
    • Bristol, England / Cumbria, Barrow-In-Furness, England
    • Negotiable

    Principal Electrical Engineer - Power Join our Electrical Power team and help design the self-contained generation and distribution system for the Successor submarine - a new generation of submarine designed to carry the UK's independent nuclear deterrent

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Operations Supervisor (Mechanical/Electrical/Instrumentation)

    National Grid
    • England, Cambridgeshire
    • £33000 - £39000 per annum

    Operations Supervisor - (Mechanical/Electrical/Instrumentation) Salary: Circa £33k - 39k dependant on experience + vehicle and great additional benefits (share scheme, pension, potential bonus).Location: Wisbech - Cambridgeshire We currently have an excit

    • Recruiter: National Grid

    Apply for this job

  • Lead NDT Trainer

    BAE Systems
    • England, Lancashire
    • Competitive package

    Would you like to be involved with training UK and international teams in Non Destructive Inspection (NDI) to support the in service fleet (Typhoon Tornado, and Hawk)?

    • Recruiter: BAE Systems

    Apply for this job

  • Systems Design - Emerging Portfolio

    • Bristol
    • Competitive Salary & Benefits

    What?s the opportunity?   There are fantastic opportunities in Systems Design for engineers to work within Future Systems. These are highly visible, fast paced roles, in...

    • Recruiter: MBDA

    Apply for this job

  • Metering Engineer

    Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
    • Teddington, United Kingdom
    • £24,109 - £27,961 plus EO Electronics PE of £8,090.00

    We are now looking for a Metering Engineer to deliver RD’s In-Service Testing (IST) scheme for gas and electricity meters.

    • Recruiter: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

    Apply for this job

  • Head of Operational Estates

    Premium job

    The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust
    • Shrewsbury, Shropshire
    • £46,625 to £57,640 per annum

    As an experienced Estates Manager, you will play a key role in helping to shape the future of the Estates service.

    • Recruiter: The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust

    Apply for this job

  • Engineering Project Manager - Electrical & Automation

    • York, North Yorkshire
    • c£45,000 + Car Allowance + Bonus + Excellent Benefits

    Nestlé Product Technology Centre in York currently has an excellent opportunity for an Engineering Project Manager

    • Recruiter: Nestle

    Apply for this job

  • Assistant Professor (Tenure Track) of Smart Building Solutions

    Premium job

    ETH Zurich
    • Zurich, Canton of Zürich (CH)

    The successful candidate is expected to develop a strong and visible research programme in the area of control and diagnostics of building systems

    • Recruiter: ETH Zurich

    Apply for this job

  • Process Controls Leader

    Premium job

    Phillips 66
    • Humber Refinery, South Killingholme, North Lincolnshire DN40 3DW
    • £60k - 75k plus extensive Compensation and benefits package, dependent upon experience

    Experienced Process Control Leader providing leadership and technical support for Oil Refinery. Extensive Compensation and benefits package.

    • Recruiter: Phillips 66

    Apply for this job

More jobs ▶


Choose the way you would like to access the latest news and developments in your field.

Subscribe to E&T