Plant Power: Scientists Develop Bionic Leaf That Uses Bacteria to Convert Solar Energy Into Liquid Fuel

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The future of solar energy has just turned over a new leaf, literally. Solar power is considered an inexhaustible fuel source that is both pollution- and noise-free, and now its future is looking even brighter.

A team of researchers from Harvard University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have found a way to convert solar energy into liquid fuel by designing a bionic leaf, which uses a specific strain of bacteria to carry out the process.

A bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha then consumes the hydrogen gas, converting it into protons and electrons, which become integrated into molecules of carbon dioxide that become part of the bacteria’s reproductive cycle.
A bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha then consumes the hydrogen gas, converting it into protons and electrons, which become integrated into molecules of carbon dioxide that become part of the bacteria’s reproductive cycle.

Recently developed by a team of scientists led by Daniel Nocera at Harvard University, the artificial leaf creates oxygen and hydrogen. A bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha then consumes the hydrogen gas, converting it into protons and electrons, which become integrated into molecules of carbon dioxide that become part of the bacteria’s reproductive cycle.

This new form of energy takes advantage of bacteria to effectively convert sunlight into a form of liquid fuel, seamlessly blending artificial technology with biology.

“This is a proof of concept that you can have a way of harvesting solar energy and storing it in the form of a liquid fuel…we had a mission of wanting to interface some kinds of organisms with the harvesting of solar energy. It was a perfect match,” Pamela Silver of the Wyss Institute explained.

This comes at time when both consumers and government leaders are eagerly turning towards alternative fuel and energy sources as prices within the oil, gas, and electric marketplaces continue to steadily rise. Considered one of the earliest alternative energy options, solar cells have yet to gain deep traction. One reason for this is the lack of infrastructure that supports solar cell energy use in vehicles, despite the increasing popularity of electric and hybrid vehicles.

It’s likely that environmentally friendly energy options, such as the new bionic leaf and more traditional forms of solar energy, will each carve out their own niche in the future of energy use.

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