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The Artificial Leaf

An "artificial leaf" could turn your home into its own power and gas station, reports Jack Hitt in The New York Times (3/31/14). The artificial leaf, pioneered by Harvard chemist Daniel Nocera, "generates energy more or less the way a tree does. Light strikes a container of water and out bubbles hydrogen, an energy source." In this case, the "leaf" is a "silicon strip coated in catalysts" that "breaks down the water molecule such that on one side oxygen bubbles up and on the other, hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel." (video)

"You can drop it in a glass of water and hold it up to a window," says Daniel. "You won’t need heavy engineering." What you will need, however, is some means to convert the hydrogen into fuel — specifically, "a fuel cell, which can turn hydrogen into electricity … This is comparable to what Elon Musk struggles with in selling Tesla’s electric cars. He has to persuade the public not only to buy a new kind of car, but all that goes with it: the infrastructure of batteries, charging stations, high-voltage home plugs and new kinds of auto mechanics."

"If we had fuel cells in your house and your car, then everybody would be trying to implement the artificial leaf right now," says Daniel. Fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of rock to release natural gas or oil — could be the key because it "could drive the establishment of an infrastructure for using hydrogen in the home," says Daniel. In turn, the artificial leaf might provide an alternative to the carbon dioxide pollution associated with fracking. When that happens, he says, "Your house will be its own gas station."