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article imageArtificial forest converts sunlight into energy, research claims

By Eko Armunanto     May 24, 2013 in Science
Berkeley scientists are developing an artificial forest to convert solar energy into chemical fuels. In a process that mimics photosynthesis, it soaks up light to generate oxygen and hydrogen, two gases that can be used to power fuel cells.
Led by Peidong Yang, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says the artificial photosynthetic system is composed of two semiconductor light absorbers, an interfacial layer for charge transport, and spatially separated co-catalysts.
“To facilitate solar water-splitting in our system, we synthesized tree-like nanowire heterostructures, consisting of silicon trunks and titanium oxide branches. Visually, arrays of these nanostructures very much resemble an artificial forest,” says Peidong Yang.
Much like trees in a real forest, the artificial trees are densely packed to help suppress sunlight reflection and produce more surface area for fuel-producing reactions. They also do a good job of mimicking natural photosynthesis, the process by which sunlight is absorbed by the chloroplast of real green plants.
The scientists claimed to have achieved 0.12% solar-to-fuel conversion efficiency with this artificial photosynthetic system. “Although comparable to some natural photosynthetic conversion efficiencies, this rate will have to be substantially improved for commercial use,” they say.
Alternative sources of energy have become scientists’ concern since they found that the increased content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the warmth of our planet to cause the so-called Global Warming Effect. British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell predict that, by 2050, one-third of the world's energy will need to come from solar, wind, and other renewable resources. Climate change, population growth, and fossil fuel depletion mean that those renewables should play a bigger role in the future than they do today.
The artificial forest marks an important step as solar power has been considered as the best alternative from environmental perspective. There is a previous model for this man-made photosynthesis system, known as artificial leaves developed by Daniel Nocera at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that have also been successful at generating hydrogen and oxygen; but Yang and his team believe their nanoscale system is more efficient, and less expensive, than its predecessors.
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