Innovation Day 2011

The next big thing? Image courtesy flickr user tonrulkens.

It’s Innovation Day at CHF! Innovation Day is a bit of a misnomer, actually, because the event spans two days. Now in its eighth year, Innovation Day brings together young innovators and industry leaders, both to celebrate breakthroughs in chemistry and seek solutions for tomorrow’s challenges.

Daniel Nocera, Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy and Professor of Chemistry at MIT, who will be speaking Tuesday morning, is no stranger to CHF – he was part of our IYC panel back in January. His talk tomorrow will detail advancements on the artificial leaf, which stands to be one of the most exciting developments discussed at this year’s conference.

Does everyone remember photosynthesis from their elementary school science classes? Leaves take carbon dioxide from the air and water from the earth, combine them with energy from the sun, and end up with sugars (for their food) and oxygen (which they release back into the air for us to breathe). They are lean, green, chemical reaction machines—but why let the leaves have all the fun? Nocera has created an artificial leaf that can do the same job, only better.

The fake leaves may not look much like the real thing, but they are ten times more efficient than the ones on the oak tree in your front yard. They are essentially tiny solar cells, made of silicon and spread with catalysts that split H2O back into hydrogen and oxygen. The gases are then sent to a fuel cell, which produces a wireless current of electricity.

Sure, the artificial leaves are cool—but why bother? It turns out that these little pieces of silicon could provide us with some big power. Nocera says that a single leaf combined with a gallon of water can create up to 30 kilowatt-hours of energy a day, which is about the average daily usage of an American home. The water doesn’t even have to be fancy, either—just rain or stream water will do. Another good thing: the leaves are made of common materials like silicon, so they’re inexpensive to make. This could especially benefit the poor in developing countries, and Nocera is hoping to have prototypes on the ground in India later this year.

The technology is not quite perfect yet. While water is easy to get, the fuel cells that store the energy aren’t. Also, capturing the gases may be a little easier said than done, since scientists don't actually know how to do that yet. But with all the minds coming together at Innovation Day, you never know…

Sarah Reisert is Coordinator for Awards and Affiliate Relations at CHF.

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Posted In: Technology

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