How An Artificial Leaf Might Reduce Global Warming

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In the build up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, global warming and carbon emissions have become central talking points the world over, snatching up headlines. According to the EPA, carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and industrial processes make up 65 percent of green house gas emissions. The EPA also notes that carbon emissions have gone up nearly 90 percent since the 1970s.

Now, scientists based out of Berkeley, created a new artificial photosynthesizing “leaf” that, by creating acetate from carbon dioxide captured from the air, hopes to help reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and resulting carbon emissions.

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What’s revolutionary about the leave is that it is able to “artificially” go through the process of a photosynthesis, which has so far only been able to occur in natural plants and organisms that turn light energy (mostly from the sun) into chemical energy fueling the organisms by pulling carbon dioxide (part of carbon emissions) from the air and combining it with water.

The artificial leaf out of Berkeley, however, is a semiconductor-bacteria hybrid that uses sunlight and carbon dioxide to create “acetate,” a base for many products, such as polymers, which in turn are the base for plastics and other biosynthetic products. Using semiconducting “nanowires” and bacteria, the leaf then mimics the process of photosynthesis. The difference being that plants use photosynthesis to create carbohydrates, while the artificial leaf creates biosynthetic building blocks.


The result? The artificial leaf would not only reduce the amount of carbon in the air and, with that, the impact of climate change, but it would also contribute to producing plastics that would be environmentally friendly and biodegradable, turning a notoriously damaging process and product into something far greener. In fact, out of the estimated 288 million tons of plastic currently produced every year, 10 % end up in and polluting the world’s oceans.

In a press release from Berkeley Lab, Peidong Yang, a lead scientist in the development of the artificial leaf, said, “We believe our system is a revolutionary leap forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis.”

Thus far, Yang and the co-leaders of the team, Christopher Chang and Michelle Chang, have, according to the press release, achieved a “solar energy conversion efficiency of 0.38 percent for about 200 hours.” While 0.38 percent might not sound like much, it’s actually the equivalent of an actual photosynthesizing leaf. Additionally, with the acetate created through the process, the team has been successful in creating a 52 percent yield of the green plastic PHB.

“Our system has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way,” Yang said, “rather than extracting them from deep below the ground.”

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Currently, the team is working toward reaching 3 percent conversion efficiency, and, Yang noted, once they reach ten percent, the product would potentially be ready for commercial distribution.

Similarly, in recent years, many other scientists and philanthropists have noted what they saw as inaction by governments around the world, and taken to investing in products like the artificial leaf. Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam dreamed up a giant windmill-like technology called the EWICON that uses electrostatically charged water droplets to create energy. And the Canadian company Carbon Engineering, backed by Bill and Melinda Gates, created the world’s first large scale carbon capture machine.

For their inventiveness, for their willingness to face the world’s biggest problem head on, and for realizing that some solutions might just come from the biological beauty of nature, we are happy to name Piedong Yang, Christopher Chang, Michelle Chang, and the rest of the Berkeley Lab our Luminaries of the Week.

For more information about the artificial leaf, you can take a look at their paper: “Nanowire-Bacteria Hybrids for Unassisted Solar Carbon Dioxide Fixation to Value-Added Chemicals.”

Image Credit: “Leaf #2 – IMG_0439” by N i c o l a / CC License 2.0 via Flickr


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About the author: Gary Joshua Garrison


Gary Joshua Garrison is the Prose Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. His fiction has appeared in various locations around the World Wide Web, as well as in bound reams of paper. His nonfictional musing can be found at Luminary Daily and Way Too Indie. He writes, teaches, and goes to the movies in the desert of Arizona with his well-postured cat, Widget.



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