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Researchers at Shanghai Jiaotong University in China have been working with leaf structures to better understand the process in order to replicate a man-made version of the leaf that could be adapted to do the inverse -- splitting water to make hydrogen fuel -- using a typical photocatalyst like Titanium Dioxide (one of the most abundant minerals on earth). By "biotemplating" the Titanium Dioxide to mimic the light harvesting structures of the leaf (and adding platinum nanoparticles to magnify the effect) the research team was able to get 80x the efficiency of current technologies for producing hydrogen gas.
Our results may represent an important first step towards the design of novel artificial solar energy transduction systems based on natural paradigms, particularly based on exploring and mimicking the structural design. Nature still has much to teach us, and human ingenuity can modify the principles of natural systems for enhanced utility.
Fan and his colleagues used several types of leaves as a template, including the grape-leaved anemone (Anemone vitifolia). First, they treated the leaves with dilute hydrochloric acid, allowing them to replace magnesium atoms - which form a crucial part of plants' photosynthetic machinery - with titanium (see illustration).
Under the fuel through artificial photosynthesis scenario, nanotubes embedded within a membrane would act like green leaves, using incident solar radiation (Hγ) to split water molecules (H2O), freeing up electrons and oxygen (O2) that then react with carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce a fuel, shown here as methanol (CH3OH). The result is a renewable green energy source that also helps scrub the atmosphere of excessive carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. (Illustration by Flavio Robles, Berkeley Lab Public Affairs)