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ASU research focuses on leaf processes to create hydrogen fuel

Technology recreating the processes of leaves could yield abundant renewable energy in the form of hydrogen fuel, according to a team of Arizona State University researchers.

An artificial leaf that’s under development will use solar energy to convert water to hydrogen. The key to making it work: developing a process that would help oxidize water to yield oxygen.

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel,” said Ana Moore, a chemistry professor who is working on the project. “You can burn hydrogen and it’s not dangerous. It burns cleanly.”

The project has been in development for five years as a part of BISfuel, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy with ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“Fossil fuels will eventually run out,” said Devens Gust, a chemistry professor who is also working on the project. “We have to have an alternative.”

The artificial leaf won’t resemble a plant leaf at all, although ideally it will perform in the same way. ASU’s leaf is a cell, a few inches across, composed of glass, wires and metal.

Different elements are being tested to find a catalyst that oxidizes water. The chemical element iridium is currently being used, but the element is rare, making it impractical for long-term use.

The goal is finding a cheap and abundant material to oxidize water, Gust said, something that would provide an alternative to using just solar power to fuel the process.

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“The sun doesn’t shine all the time,” Gust said. “You can’t store electricity very well, but you can store a concentrated form of energy like fuels.”

After the chemists finish developing chemical reactions for the artificial leaf, engineers will take on making it efficient and cheap to use. However, this could still be years away, said Daniel Buttry, the chair for ASU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Success also depends on funding. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $14.5 million for five years to ASU’s BISfuel research center and other Energy Frontier Research Centers. A proposal to renew the grant is pending.

“They (such centers) represent a unique approach to energy research, bringing together the skills and talents of teams of investigators to perform energy – relevant, basic research with a scope and complexity beyond that possible in typical single-investigator or small group research projects,” said Jeff Sherwood, a spokesman for the department.

External grant support for the research center totals about $25 million, Buttry said.

Many of the projects being worked on will take years to develop, he added. Society cannot expect fast results and must maintain stamina to keep research on track, he said.

“It’s a long haul,” Buttry said. “You have to remember it requires a sustained effort.”

Converting sunlight into fuel could eventually power cars, planes and more, Buttry said.

“It’s the future,” he said. “We have to figure out how to capture energy and use it in a sustainable way.”

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