solar leaf A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © jonnysek \ Fotolia.com

Having been millions of years in development, the life forms that thrive on Earth have come up with a trick or two for maximizing sustainability. So what better model could we use for sustainable technology than the Earth’s own natural processes? And one of the most impressive of the world’s natural features is the energy storage system of plants.

It’s also impossibly difficult to replicate, which is why the recent innovation by MIT’s Dr. Daniel Nocera has the scientific community in a buzz. He has created the world’s first artificial leaf.

Not to be confused with the plastic leaves of a fake houseplant, Nocera’s leaf is actually a paper-thin piece of silicon. It absorbs sunlight which is split into hydrogen and water molecules by catalysts on either side of the wafer – just like the photosynthesis of a plant. The hydrogen can then be used in fuel cells to create electricity.

The essence of the breakthrough lies in its revolutionary capacity to store solar energy. Current solar technologies work well when the sun is shining, but struggle to store energy when it isn’t. Artificial leaves could be a major leap forward for solar power.

Ironically, it’s only now, as our actions destabilize the Earth’s ecosystems, that we’ve begun to appreciate the lessons in efficiency and balance of those formerly stable systems. Many of these lessons are about resilience: ecological resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to absorb shocks or disruptions, to bend without breaking. A healthy ecosystem has layers of redundancies that allow it to do this easily. Lately, theorists have begun applying the idea of resilience to human communities and systems in the context of climate change adaptation: a resilient community is one that can adapt quickly and readily to changing circumstances.

The artificial leaf mimics nature in its mechanisms and also in its contribution to energy resilience. A solar cell that can store energy is much more dependable than one that cannot. It also represents a more reliable form of energy production, since it is immune to small-scale shocks, such as a cloudy day.  Theoretically, lightweight solar cells could power homes all over the world, since the technology is relatively simple to replicate. “That's why I know this is going to work,” says Nocera. “It's so easy to implement.”

Nocera dreams of providing people with “their first 100 watts of energy” in parts of the world where electricity is scarce. 100 watts is enough electricity to power a cell phone with which to receive important updates in an emergency. It’s also sufficient to power a light bulb, so that one can study after work, further one’s education and support one’s family. Along with dozens of other uses, that tiny spark of dependable electricity is enough to make a difference when it’s needed most. Reliable solar power adds another layer of tools and resources that embattled communities can draw on in the face of increasing natural disasters. Resilient technology begets resilient communities.

Not bad for a little leaf.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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