This Week's Herman Trend Alert

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  The Herman Trend Alert

November 23, 2016

Replacing Fossil Fuels with Bionic Leaves

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which we no longer burn fossil fuels. (Yes, it is coming!) One of the key processes we would have to find a technological substitute for is photosynthesis (the system of producing energy from water and sunlight).

Bionic Leaf 2.0
Now, from Harvard University comes that news that we are a step closer. Scientists there have created the "Bionic Leaf 2.0." Interestingly, this new system is even more efficient than Mother Nature's own, and for the first time, this innovation is capable of producing liquid fuels. These artificial leaves simulate the ability of their natural counterparts.

Technology imitates life
Similar to previous versions, when placed in water, the Bionic Leaf 2.0 absorbs solar energy, Then, it splits the water molecules into their constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. These gases are then collected for use in fuel cells to generate electricity. Moreover, with the addition of an engineered bacteria, the hydrogen can be used to produce liquid fuels.

2.0 solves an important problem
The nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy catalyst used to produce hydrogen in earlier versions created a serious unintended consequence. The process created reactive oxygen species, that attacked and destroyed the engineered bacteria's DNA. To overcome the problem, researchers had to run the system at a higher voltage---obviously reducing the efficiency. Bionic Leaf 2.0 uses a different catalyst, one with a cobalt-phosphorous alloy.

10 times the efficiency
The new catalyst does not make reactive oxygen species; the lowered voltage significantly increases the efficiency. The new system is able to transform sunlight into plant matter---with 10 times the efficiency of even the best plants. But that's just the beginning of potential applications for this technology.

A versatile new platform
The beauty of this technology is that it can make a variety of carbon-based molecule, derived from hydrogen and oxygen. For example, the researchers have already demonstrated that the system can create compound fuels like isobutanol and isopentanol, and even a substance called PHB, a bio-plastic precursor. In addition, the biologically compatible new catalysts don't leech material into solutions.

Huge potential
Though there is a possibility of increased efficiency, the system is already commercially viable. The commercial applications as an inexpensive source of renewable energy, both in developed and developing countries, could be used to power individual homes. Using biomimicry (the technological copying of nature and natural processes) in bio-manufacturing has a tremendous potential. Copying the efficiency of nature will continue to serve humanity by providing awesome scientific advancements. We have only just begun to see the results of this research.


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