MIT Scientists Develop ‘Artificial Leaf’


The world’s first small and portable modular photosynthetic power plant has been created by a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The revolutionary project has created the first truly practical artificial leaf. The new technology, the size of a poker card, is able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by creating photosynthesis in the presence of sunlight.

The device, made from silicon, electronics and catalysts, placed in a single gallon of water can produce sufficient electricity to power a house all day long. The photosynthesis process of the system is ten times stronger than a natural leaf.

Director of Yankee Group’s Anywhere Consumer research group, Carl Howe, explained the principle as “taking a solar cell and turning it into a battery” and named it “the dark solar energy” as it is able to produce energy at night, in the form of light.

The principle of the “artificial leaf” first came into existence more than a decade ago, when John Turner, a scientist at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder developed a device capable of simulating photosynthesis. But Turner’s system was not successful because the device was extremely unstable and was composed of rare and expensive materials.

Now, the new device uses broadly available inexpensive materials and can use water from any source. Also, the device is highly stable and no complicated conditions are required for the process.

The research team for the project is led by MIT’s Daniel Nocera. Nocera was working with his postdoctoral fellow Matthew Kanan to find a process that uses sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, back in 2008. The research was helped along when Nocera used nickel and cobalt as inexpensive and powerful catalysts.

These catalysts can automatically assemble from water in order to form a partial cubane structure. The process of splitting PH-neutral water into hydrogen and oxygen works under atmospheric pressure and Room temperature. In Nocera’s lab, the artificial leaf prototype was able to operate continuously for about 45 hours without a drop in activity.

“We believe we have done it. The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station,” – says Nocera.

“Water Splitting: The Artificial Leaf” was project #4 at the eni-MIT Solar Frontiers Center. The four participants were Daniel G. Nocera, Chemistry, Christopher C. Cummins, Chemistry, Klavs Jensen, Chemical Engineering and Yang Shao-Horn, Mechanical Engineering.

The research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. Funding for the project came from the National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation.