Artificial Intelligence? No! It's time for Artificial Leaf.

Author:  Jun Beom
Date:  April 2010

March 25, 2010, at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Tongxiang Fan, and his colleagues, Di zhang, and Han Zhou from State Key Lab of Matrix Composites at Shanghai Jiaotong University, reported a novel design to increase the efficiency of utilizing solar energy to catalyze water into hydrogen fuel. Inspired from the structure of leaves, Fan's group have made Artificial Inorganic Leaf (AIL) with TiO2 increasing the efficiency more than 30 times that of conventional TiO2 catalysis.

"This concept may provide a new vista for the design of artificial photosynthetic systems based on biological paradigms and build a working prototype to exploit sustainable energy resources," said Tongxiang Fan, expressing his excitement about the new discovery and its possible contribution to the advancement of renewable energy.

Recently, with concerns revolving around the theory of global warming and the rise in oil prices, a quest for sustainable energy has been a hot topic in the scientific community. Among different options of eco-friendly alternatives, hydrogen energy has received great attention because it does not produce any toxic elements or green house gases, but rather just water vapor. However, the use of hydrogen fuel has not been as wide spread as initially speculated due to high operating costs.

In order to lower the cost of hydrogen fuels, Fan, Zhang, and Zhou searched for a better mechanism of increasing the efficiency of obtaining hydrogen fuel, and finally found a way by mimicking the structure and mechanism of plant photosynthesis. Using Anemone vitifolia, a native Chinese plant, as a biotemplate, these researchers produced Pt/Nitrogen doped TiO2 (doped means impurities were introduced; in this case nitrogen was added to TiO2 in order to control the properties of TiO2) catalyst having a leaf structure. The results showed that AIL is eight times more efficient than conventional TiO2 catalysts and three times more active than P25, one of the few commercial photo-catalysts available. With platinum nanoparticles embedded on the surface of AIL, the activity increased additional factor of ten. This practically means that with the same amount of hydrogen gas, a car that could travel 20 miles can now travel 200 miles!

"Nature still has much to teach us, and human ingenuity can modify the principles of natural systems for enhanced utility," said Fan. It turns out Mother nature may actually be our true mother, whom we should ask for advice more often.

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