Breakthrough discovery could power the world

Silk leaf by Jualian Melchiorri
Silk leaf by Jualian Melchiorri

Scientists from Melbourne’s Monash University are claiming a world first artificial ‘leaf’ that could deliver power to cars, houses and even run communities. The solar-powered device artificially recreates the process of photosynthesis; producing hydrogen with unprecedented efficiency.

The discovery, outlined in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, comes as fuel-cell cars and the Tesla home battery increase demand for an affordable hydrogen supply. Lead researcher Leone Spiccia said electrochemical splitting of water offered a cheap and clean source of hydrogen as the “ultimate sustainable fuel”.

“This breakthrough takes us one step further,” he told The Australian.

“The process stores 22.4 per cent of captured solar energy in the form of hydrogen. This compares with a previous record of 18 per cent and is well above the 10 per cent efficiency benchmark required for practical impact.”

Monash University’s School of Chemistry Professor MacFarlane said the system did not use a lot of water and could even operate in seawater. What’s more, the system could be used to store excess solar energy when the electricity grid wassaturated, or to power the increasingrange of fuel-cell cars.

It could be installed on home rooftops, or larger models could sit on the roofs of petrol stations.

“The fuel (can be) generated where you fill your car up,” Professor MacFarlane said, acknowledging mobile versions could be developed for people going hiking or fishing, or for use in war or disaster zones.

“At the other end of the scale, huge water-splitting plants could be installed alongside solar farms in the desert,” he said.

Although commercial versions of the system could be manufactured in as little as two years, it will most likely take much longer for a commercial market to develop.