Scientists have tried to replicate the natural processes found in plants, and a team at Cambridge University achieved one notable success. They have created an “Artificial leaf” that utilizes carbon dioxide and water vapor from the air to produce fuels that can potentially power vehicles in the future.
Artificial Leaf Technology Overview
While electric vehicles are the future of zero-emission transportation, artificial leaf technology has the potential to be the ultimate eco-friendly solution. As of now, the technology is limited at the laboratory scale. However, once mass production starts, vehicles equipped with this technology will have the capability to generate fuel (ethanol and n-propanol) while in move using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight.
Moreover, ethanol and n-propanol are both eco-friendly fuels and have a high energy density. They are also easy to transport and store. So, the artificial leaf is considered to be a highly efficient technology with minimal or no adverse impact on nature.
Evolution of Artificial Leaf over time
In a world where fossil fuels are the primary energy source for machinery, artificial leaf technology can play a crucial role in shifting the dependency towards a more environment-friendly approach.
Back in 2009, scientists were able to produce fuel a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. But at present, the technology has progressed in such a way that the fuels can be produced directly, skipping the intermediary step of syngas production.
Working Mechanism of Artificial Leaf
Similar to the process in plants where sunlight and carbon dioxide are converted into glucose with the release of oxygen, the artificial leaf technology mimics this by converting carbon dioxide and water vapor in the air into multicarbon alcohols, specifically ethanol and n-propanol, in the presence of sunlight.
The Artificial leaf consists of numerous layers of copper, glass, silver, and graphite. The technology contains light absorbers similar to what the real leaf has in order to capture the sunlight. It works alongside catalysts (in plants, chlorophyll) i.e., copper and palladium to facilitate chemical reactions.
So, in the presence of sunlight, the catalyst converts CO2 to ethanol and n-propanol while also producing oxygen from water as a byproduct.
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The Change Artificial leaf can bring alongside.
The widespread adoption of artificial leaf technology has the potential to bring about significant changes in a world heavily reliant on fossil fuels. It can help in reducing carbon dioxide emissions by giving an alternative method for producing fuels. Artificial leaf technology can contribute to greater energy independence by utilizing abundant resources like sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Importance of Ethanol in present days
Ethanol plays a significant role as a fuel in various everyday machinery. It is a biomass-produced clean fuel in most vehicles nowadays as an alternative to fossil fuels. In fact, petrol and diesel (E10) also contain 10% ethanol as their component. Though ethanol reduces the demand for fossil fuels, it certainly diverts the purpose of harvesting sugarcane and corn from food to fuel production. As the demand for this eco-friendly fuel grows, it requires the usage of more agricultural land.
The artificial leaf offers a different approach to ethanol production, eliminating the need for agricultural space and relying solely on sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.
Challenges in Scaling Up
Currently, researchers are working on improving the light absorbers to improve their absorption of sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water from the air. This development is crucial as vehicles require ample fuel to start driving. With the technology still in its nascent stage, it is impossible to determine the overall cost in advance for mass production.
While the concept holds promise, the practical implementation of large-scale artificial systems is still challenging.
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