October 2010
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Mimicking Nature with Artificial Leaves

By Jack Lundee, an avid follower of all things green and progressive.

With large corporations opening new battery plants, it’s no wonder why the race is on for sustainability. As Andrew Liveris and his team gear up to decrease the rate in which we burn fossil fuels, others are doing the same.

But Batteries aren’t the only solution; they are amongst a handful. Recently, a team from NCSU (North Carolina State University) developed what they now refer to as “artificial leaves.” Technically speaking, the design is quite simple! They simply formulated a water-based gel solution to impersonate solar cells. The leaves themselves are composed of this water-based gel, joined with carbon materials (i.e. carbon nanotubes, graphite, etc…) This gives the leaves a more life-like structure, allowing them to bend in various directions. And as an added bonus, Velev mentions that this water-based gel will hopefully someday be replaced by natures own Chlorophyll.

How it works

These nanotube/water-based solar cells then catch light from the sun, which excites these light sensitive molecules producing electricity. The process parallels the way in which plants capture light and turn it into energy (photosynthesis).  More simply put, photosynthesis is the process in which plants capture light from the sun, further synthesizing sugars needed to grow.

Although still a very long ways away from completion, Dr. Velev hopes to “mimic the self-regenerating mechanisms found in plants…” [1] He goes on to state that efficiency will be a problem until he can change the water-based gel over to something more suitable. Congruently, the light-sensitive materials will need to be swapped for something with greater excitability.

Dr. Velev and his team are doing a magnificent job in researching what would quite possibly be one of the greatest long-term approaches to renewable energy. At this point however, it’s not quite practical. And Velev clearly states that “We don’t want to overpromise at this stage, as the devices are still of relatively low efficiency and there is a long way to go before this can become a practical technology…”[1]

1. NCSU News http://news.ncsu.edu/releases/176mkvelevartificialleaves/ Mimicking Nature, Water-Based ‘Artificial Leaf’ Produces Electricity Dr. Orlin Velev 9/24/2010

Jack Lundee is a writer for Everything Left (http://everythingleft.wordpress.com). Graduating from the Newhouse School of Communications, Jack has spent most of his free writing time in the political/green blogosphere. If you’d like to have something written for you concerning renewable/alternative energy, feel free to drop Jack a comment on his blog.



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