For more than a decade, we've been awaiting the introduction of a fully electric car capable of meeting the performance of its fossil fuel counterpart without costing the equivalent of the GDP of a small, South American country. And, while hydrogen fuel cells hold a lot of promise, the one thing standing in the way is the lack of an efficient way to generate electricity to power the cells. That may be changing thanks to a new ‘bionic' leaf programme at California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Researchers at the laboratory have been developing a new artificial leaf system capable of using solar energy to create hydrogen, which could then be used to produce electricity. The lab has been working to design and build a device that would be both effective and affordable enough for eventual commercial applications. Apparently, they are closer than ever before.
A recent exhibition of the artificial leaf shows a device that mimics the process of photosynthesis to convert solar energy into hydrogen. How does it work? It's as simple as dropping the bionic leaf into standing water and letting it go to work.
The artificial leaf is actually a photocathode, powered by the sun, which removes hydrogen from water and stores it in a small cell. Observers say the device actually simulates photosynthesis rather accurately, at least in terms of generating energy. Instead of using that energy to power a living organism though, it is stored for later use in electrical generation.
Now that the Berkeley researchers have proven the concept, the next step is to figure out how to do it in a way is cost-effective. That's the key to making it a workable product for the auto industry. Assuming they figure it out sooner rather than later, it is possible to conceive the idea of all-electric vehicles being mass-produced worldwide within the next 10 years.
Storage Is the Key
Anyone who has followed alternative fuel vehicles research/production knows that such vehicles, at least in terms of solar power, stake all of their viability on storage. In other words, there needs to be a way to effectively store energy created from solar sources so that said vehicles are operable at night or during inclement weather. Without effective storage capacity, a solar powered electric vehicle is just not practical.
The researchers at Berkeley have given the auto industry real hope with their bionic leaf project by offering the solar production and storage they've been looking for. If it works, it might even be possible for auto manufacturers to all but abandon batteries. The one exception might be an emergency battery able to get a vehicle to a service garage in the event of a solar breakdown.
As we search for new and better ways to use renewable resources, it is inevitable that we will better learn how to mimic what nature already does. To the extent we can do so, we'll be able to make maximum use of the natural energy sources around us.