Scientists Create World's 1st Practical Artificial Leaf, 10X as Efficient as the Real Thing

By Patrick Morgan | March 28, 2011 2:23 pm

What’s the News: This week, scientists say that they’ve passed a chemistry milestone by creating the world’s first practical photosynthesis device. The playing-card-sized photosynthetic gadget uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used to produce energy, and is reputedly 10 times more efficient than a natural leaf. Researchers say they expect it to revolutionize power storage, especially in remote areas that don’t currently have electricity. “A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades,” says lead researcher Daniel Nocera, who’s presenting this research at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society this week.

How the Heck:

  • The artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt as catalysts to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen by facilitating oxygen-oxygen bonding.
  • Oxygen and hydrogen molecules are then sent to a fuel cell that can produce electricity. If the device is placed in a one-gallon bucket of water in bright sunlight, it can reportedly produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing nation.

What’s the Context:

  • The very first artificial leaf was created by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, over a decade ago. The device lasted for only one day and was made of expensive metals, making it impractical.
  • This new artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt, which are relatively cheap, and has so far operated continuously for at least 45 hours, making it the first practical artificial leaf.
  • In 2008, Nocera announced a way of splitting water using cobalt and platinum, a breakthrough at the time. Now, by using nickel instead of the more expensive platinum, he’s made the entire process economically feasible, in addition to combining everything into a working prototype.
  • Nocera has appeared in Discover before, including his National Science Foundation briefing on energy storage.
  • Many more labs are also working on artificial photosynthesis.
  • 80beats has covered other green energies, from wind turbines to natural gas.

Next Up:

  • Scientists are working to increase the device’s efficiency still higher.
  • Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate, plans on creating a power plant based on this research within the next year and a half.

Reference: Daniel Nocera et al. 241st National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. March 27-31, 2011 Anaheim, California, USA

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Schwen

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
  • Chris

    YAY ^^. Excitement

  • Georg

    If the device is placed in a one-gallon bucket of water in bright sunlight, it can reportedly produce enough electricity to power a house in a developing nation.

    ??? from a “leaf” about the size of a poker card?

    I hear the words, but I lack faith.

  • Derek

    Looking forward to the combination of these and high-efficiency solar panels combining to run homes in developed nations in the future.
    I wonder if the presence of normal levels of humidity in the air and also high concentrations during ‘morning dew’ would be enough to power these at optimal efficiency levels?
    If humidity is indeed sufficient, then it may also be a good way to charge electric vehicles while they are driving and catching high rates of humidity – even put them in the car’s exhaust system to attempt to reuse the wasted energy.

  • Emmett

    Don’t let the capitalist pigs subvert or otherwise try to slow down the development of this technology so that only they can control the profits and implementation.

  • dave chamberlin

    Keep us updated, one hell of an interesting development. There is a saying in the arab world. The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

  • MT-LA

    Even though the article pretty clearly states it: This device does not produce energy or electricity. This device only serves to split water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The hydrogen gas can THEN be used to make electricity (such as a simple fuel cell).

    @Derek: in light of the above clarification, I doubt that this device can be used to charge an electric vehicle. It can, however, be utilized on a massive scale to bring hydrogen production costs way down. Once you have a cheap way to make hydrogen, then hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become much more feasible. And no…I don’t think you’ll even see on-board hydrogen creation. You’ll still have to “fill ‘er up”

  • imshandon

    By my understanding of their findings the process is 10x more efficient then today’s solar panels not nature itself but that is pretty strong claim in itself…;-)

  • Bioblogger

    Until it can reproduce itself, I still prefer nature’s solution – a fractal we can harness rather than a tool we need to manufacture. That said, it is bound to have good uses.

  • pntm

    The article does say specifically it is 10x more efficient than a natural leaf. I just like the idea that this is cutting even more oil out of the process of energy. This avenue of energy production is just too amazing to give up. Harnessing the Sun’s light to do what many other being have been doing with it for all of time. We could sustain ourselves, truly sustain, off of the Sun. Just amazing.

  • richard

    MT-LA: Why do you say this device couldn’t be used to charge a vehicle? Pair it with a fuel cell and you’ve got all you need. This article does seem almost too good to be true, but if everything they say in the article is correct, then you should simply be able to pour clean water through this device and route it to a fuel cell for power. In theory, it should be that simple.

    Also, thank you chemists of the world. This is an amazing accomplishment.

  • Douglas Watts

    “This new artificial leaf uses nickel and cobalt, which are relatively cheap …”

    Try buying a pound of cobalt, versus a pound of working dandelion leaves.

    Cobalt is a very rare element, actually, and can only be extracted from the Earth’s crust using extremely destructive techniques that involves about 100,000 tons of waste for every ton of cobalt extracted. Most world cobalt is from the hilly parts of the Congo, extracted in a way that totally destroys the landscape for centuries.

    Why is this not discussed in the story?

  • kota

    @pntm, we could be truly sustainable if you would just up and turn off the computer already.

  • Robbie


    “The playing-card-sized photosynthetic gadget creates uses sunlight to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen,”

    “creates uses sunlight” Just letting it be noticed!

    Fixed now.
    —Discover typo factory

  • Don

    Cobalt is not a particularly rare metal and it ranks 33 in abundance. It is however widely scattered in the Earth’s crust but is found in potentially exploitable quantities in several countries, 17 of which currently produce.
    Cobalt is only extracted alone from the Moroccan and Canadian Arsenide ores. It is normally associated with copper or nickel. 39% of World production is from Africa – D.R.C. (21%) and Zambia (15%) – where cobalt is a copper by-product.

    Table 1 – Where Cobalt is Mined – shows the current situation. Significant resources of cobalt are also present in the deep sea nodules and crusts which occur in the Mid-Pacific and are estimated to contain anywhere from 2.5-10 million tonnes of cobalt. At a world production level of 27,000 tonnes, this is 90 to 400 years of usage. Current land sources are estimated at over 100 years, so no long term shortage is in sight.

    Table -1 Where Cobalt is Currently Mined and/or Refined

    Country Mined Refined Approx. Refined Qty
    Australia Yes Yes 2,500
    Botswana Yes
    Brazil Yes Yes 750
    Belgium Yes 1,200
    Canada Yes Yes 4,000
    China Yes Yes 1,100
    Cuba Yes
    France Yes 140
    Finland Yes 7,500
    Japan Yes 220
    Morocco Yes Yes 1,200
    New Caledonia Yes
    Norway Yes 4,000
    Russia Yes Yes 3,500
    South Africa Yes Yes 400
    Uganda 500
    D.R.C. Yes Yes 5,000
    Zambia Yes Yes 4,000
    TOTAL 35,000 (Tonnes)

  • Andrei Ștefănucă

    guys, what about making “the photosynthesis gene” jump to human biology?

  • Amy

    While I agree that this is astounding, I don’t believe it is appropriate to say that this device is capable of “artificial photosynthesis,” and as such that it can be referred to as a man-made leaf. What this thing does is not photosynthesis.

    Good point, Amy. The researchers themselves call it photosynthesis because it imitates the crucial step in that process: using sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. True photosynthesis also involves storing that potential energy in the form of organic compounds like sugars; this photocatalytic device does not. We should’ve made that clear in the post.

    —Amos Zeeberg, Discover Web editor

  • MT-LA

    @Richard: I believe on-board hydrogen creation would be a bit too much to load onto a consumer vehicle. Here are some reasons:
    1) I have NO idea how much hydrogen is being produced by one of these card-size devices. Is the H2 being produced fast enough to enable on-the-fly power generation through a fuel cell, or does the H2 need to be accumulated/stored?
    2) If it needs to be stored, would the H2 need to be compressed, or can it stay in gaseous form? If it needs to be compressed, that adds some weight which decreases the power-to-weight ratio of the whole solution. However, autos already have turbos installed which is essentially a compressor anyways, so maybe I’m overestimating the importance.
    3) Ultimately, would it be a cheaper overall solution to create on-board or to have local hydrogen production (like having H2 produced right at the fill up station)?

    I don’t know the answers here, and the write-ups that I have seen don’t speak much to the volume of production. Just economies of scale really, but I would LOVE to have H2 production on board!

  • herpderp

    A moron says: “Don’t let the capitalist pigs subvert or otherwise try to slow down the development of this technology so that only they can control the profits and implementation.”

    This is a troll, right? No person who is capable of stringing letters together would honestly think that is a possibility? Nobody could be that foolish or ignorant unless they are doing it on purpose.

  • TxDan

    Is there any chance these could separate H and O from seawater or does it require pure water? I see additional possibilities beyond the clearly amazing energy use.

  • Rod Rescueman

    Emmett is an idiot. If this thing works as well as advertised, the “capitalist pigs” will be the ones getting them into everyone’s homes, because there will be a buck to be made. It’s only grossly inefficient boondoggles that require Socialist intervention and subsidization to work.


    “Emmett Says:
    March 28th, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Don’t let the capitalist pigs subvert or otherwise try to slow down the development of this technology so that only they can control the profits and implementation.”

    Dude, 1858 called. It wants its cant back.

  • Andy White

    Gives new meaning to the phrase “power plant.”

  • moron

    @herpderp, fubar-you’re both morons as well.

    i don’t know whether or not you’ve heard of a technique called heat mining. it’s a geothermal energy harnessing technique that could probably power the entire earth indefinitely with little to no waste. it would completely eliminate the world energy market, and every oil baron would go bankrupt. And so, because of money, the world is denied free power to everyone.

    this is the same reason we don’t have electric cars. or maglev trains that go ten times faster than the one in japan. it’s why we don’t use hydroponics and land management techniques to put food in every single mouth on this planet. it’s why we don’t change our industrial practices and use hemp to create all, not some but ALL, of our clothing, paper, houses and plumbing (yes, it can be done).

    I mean, have any of you guys even seen the recent steps toward a united world corporatocracy? that kind of government can’t survive with free abundant resources. they need money, lots and lots of money, and in order to get it they have to artificially limit supply and manipulate demand, and thereby dictate price. the easiest way to do this is control and limit the manufacture and development of technology, namely through buying and controlling patent rights.

    and rod-it’s common knowledge that brownouts and blackouts drive power prices up, that scarcity is profitable. sure there’s a buck to be made-and it’s gonna keep on being made, over and over and over again, as you go out and buy a pack of twenty every month and somehow the developers disappointingly never seem to come up with a model that has a longer lifespan.

  • Milton

    I think the author meant photocatalytic not photosynthesis.

  • Rule303

    This may sound cool and all, but a 45 hour lifespan hardly seems “practical”.
    Now, when it gets into the range of years we may have something.

  • Hydrophilia

    Interesting, but how does it compare to PV?

    Well, biomass production can be as high as 8tons per acre. Let’s say that this has an energy content of about 4 (starch). Then we are getting an average power collection rate of a bit under 1 watt per square meter. Multiply that by ten (per the article) and you get about 10 watts. A 15% PV panel in a similar situation (say^2) will average 150watt/4 or about 40 watts.

    So, the efficiency is much lower than PV, but it produces hydrogen suitable for storage and fuel cells. And we may see improvements in the future.

    Definitely interesting. Now the big questions are cost, lifespan, and pollution….

  • Hydrophilia

    1) 8 tons per acre PER YEAR.
    2) duckweed is prolific enough that in research it can reach a yearly average of as much as 4watts per m^2….but that is probably not the leaf they are talking about.


    “22. moron Says:
    March 29th, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    i don’t know whether or not you’ve heard of a technique called heat mining. it’s a geothermal energy harnessing technique that could probably power the entire earth indefinitely with little to no waste. it would completely eliminate the world energy market, and every oil baron would go bankrupt. And so, because of money, the world is denied free power to everyone.”

    Dude, the Illuminati called. They want their deep, dark secrets back.

  • SamIam

    Screw the “developing nations”. I want it, now, and so will everybody else. It will have to be mass produced to meet demand and that will lower the price and then it can go to the 3rd world as aid rather than dollars stolen by their leaders.

  • north

    I offer any dismisive defenders of the “free” market the challenge to think through some facts which seem to be outside of your assumptions.
    Please notice that this research needed to have some “Socialist intervention and subsidization to work”.
    From the reserch paper itself:
    “Nocera acknowledges funding from The National Science Foundation and Chesonis Family Foundation.”

    The actual parties seem to lay out a strong case that the free market is broken. At least if measured by its ability to contribute to realizing reasonable social goals.
    Quoting from the executive’s letter accompanying The Chesonis Family Foundation, “SOLAR REVOLUTION PROJECT, 2008-2009 YEAR IN REVIEW”

    “Without a massive increase in funding from governmental agencies, industry sponsors, and philanthropists at the outset of innovation, it was apparent we would be leaving venture capitalists competing for a limited supply of viable business plans, large companies without new licensing opportunities, and the whole world desperately waiting for renewable energy solutions that can compete on price with coal, oil, and natural gas.
    Novel ideas among highly skilled researchers were not the limiting reagent. Usable, unconstrained dollars to support those ideas in their earliest stages were. “


    “29. north Says:
    March 30th, 2011 at 4:26 am

    I offer any dismisive defenders of the “free” market the challenge to think through some facts which seem to be outside of your assumptions.
    Please notice that this research needed to have some “Socialist intervention and subsidization to work.”

    I’ll bite. Did it NEED socialist help, or did it merely HAVE socialist help? This one example proves the free market is broken? Why has one of the free-est markets in the world produced more invention, more innovation, than all the socialist utopias in history? Or did I miss the fact that Cuba is a scientific powerhouse? Oh, and who decides what “reasonable social goals” are, and is that the most important criteria for funding scientific research?


  • Shane Nolan

    My main concern is that we might get cocky and continue to cut down forests and believe this might replace them.Sure its good for renewable energies and such Im just worried that we might think:”Gee this does the job better than normal tress so why bother saving our rainforests and woodlands” oh and guys moron is right there are so many technologies availible that can make people and communities self sufficient for example algea oil that can replace all vegetable oils(especially the environmentally destructive palm oil)as well as flour,cotton for clothing and pulps for building materials,provide a cheap animal feed and fertiliser(and even feed for humans)as well as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels for energy and plastics etc(as well as being carbon neutral).Not to mention there is recirculating aquaculture systems that have the ability to rear any species of fish indoors in landlocked areas.Geez havent you guys ever heard of Planned opolis and the other propaganda videos from Forum for the Future?

  • Derek

    Emmett says don’t let the capitalists subvert this technology. Capitalism is the only place a new technology like this will thrive. Regulating this will place boundaries upon its growth and hinder any real progress. It’s history.

  • Derek

    Good point with putting quotations on “free” market. If Emmett believes capitalism and the free market is a problem, he might do good to understand the market is already not free. If it were, you would see industrial slavery come to America, kind of like China.

  • Tintin

    Wouldn’t one call this “photohydrolysis” instead of “photosynthesis?”

  • Cal

    This is a trade off. Its actually kinda silly. They are just trading off the electron output of a solar panel for the production of hydrogen and oxygen. Its completely relative to a solar panel, save the method in which the catalysts produce the output and the end energy bundle. Furthermore, they have not included in this article the fact that this is not finished, they still have to capture and facilitate the hydrogen for energy. Hey a third world shack can be powered with a small solar panel and some basic wiring too, probably about the same net weight as this rig.

  • Randomfactor

    I imagine the power output is just enough to run an LED lighting device and a radio. But it IS a big deal to be able to produce H2 almost anywhere there’s sun.

  • argentwolfwing

    Okay, this is a step in the right direction (assuming there is a “right”). This is exciting to me (and I know this won’t get everyone) because of the implications for developing nations and such. If this technology could be brought to Africa, to the thousands of people without electricity in their everyday lives, that would be amazing. But one thing jumped out at me: “If the device is placed in a one-gallon bucket of water.” For it to be a feasible option for (let’s face it, most of the world) it needs to be more water-economical. The people I’m talking about don’t have access to water/clean water/sanitation for water. They have to walk hours every day to bring home a gallon of water from the nearest water source, and they’re going to use it for the artificial leaf?

    I’m not saying progress has not been made, but I want to point out an area of development that needs to be addressed.

  • Vince

    Can it make hydrogen on an industrial scale at prices lower than a 4th generation nuclear reactor running on spent fuel? Of course we’ll allow a few years to perfect the tech.

  • http://DiscoverMagazine Templar 7

    Enter Pseudophotosynthesis.

  • Aaron

    Yeah, it’s kind of like PV, except even the best PV is only 18% efficient, whereas this is roughly 30-60% efficient (10x the efficiency of photosynthesis).

  • Werdsauce

    Well it’s not really a “leaf” per-say. It is a photo synthetic device that uses the sun to create energy, but a leaf splits Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into Carbon and Oxygen. This “leaf” splits Dihydroxen Oxide (H2O) into Hydrogen and Oxygen… So it’s not exactly the same thing other than its artificial photosynthetic properties, just sayin.

  • michaelangelica

    A great breakthrough!
    When they/we can also produce the thousands of chemicals also produced by plants then we really will be gods

  • calvinguy

    Werdsauce, photosynthesis in leaves is not actually required to use CO2; CO2 is not split to carbon and oxygen but incorporated into sugars through the Calvin cycle, a biochemical process that is distinct from photosynthesis. Instead, photosynthesizing organisms (almost) always use either H2O or a similar molecule such as H2S which they then split into O2, H+, and electrons.

  • lvbags

    sugars through the Calvin cycle, a biochemical process that is distinct from photosynthesis. Instead, photosynthesizing

  • jim sadler

    Until these things are readily available I live in doubt. Take a look at all the innovations in Popular Science magazine over the last 50 years. Maybe 1% of the announced products actually come to market.
    Worse yet with an energy product you can expect big oil, coal and the nuclear industry to push back like crazy. I am not convinced that a man stepping forward with a new and superior energy device would not be found dead of violent causes.

  • Paul

    I’m not terribly impressed by this. It used silicon photovoltaic cells, and combines them with surfaces that can perform electrolysis.

    Well, we already have PV cells, and we already have electrolyzers, and when you build a system with both they are a heck of a lot more than 5% efficient. And even so, they are almost completely impractical, since the hydrogen you get is many times more expensive than the hydrogen that can be produced by reforming fossil fuels, particularly natural gas.

  • bloomtom

    The amount of energy that hits the planet from the sun is approx. 1300W/m^2. That’s to say that in one square meter (nine sq ft) of land you can only ever collect a maximum of 1300 Watts even at 100% efficiency.

    This device is roughly the size of a playing card, which is 0.00564515 square meters.
    This device can only harness 7 Watts, even if it were 100% efficient (not going to happen, ever).
    A conservative American home consumes an average of 1000 Watts.
    A small personal LED lamp is 1-2W, a radio is 2-5W.

    Considering this will probably be a very expensive device I don’t think it would be very useful for third world countries, they really need a sustainable water and food supply before they get electricity anyway.

  • ogee

    It’s amusing to see the number of people here looking for that techno savior. What we have is a social problem, and those cannot be solved with technology. We are gobbling up the world’s resources to supply our unsustainable lifestyle. More members of our global civilization are joining us everyday. While the earth could support a tribe of people living the way we do, it cannot support this as the dominant way of life.

    And for everyone saying capitalism rules and regulations suck, consider CAFE standards and The Garden. Think about it. Capitalist pigs block moves toward sustainability at every opportunity, and they are reliant on (NEED) government subsidies. Any increase in self-sufficiency for individuals is a corresponding decrease in corporate profit margins. Corporations rule simply because they have convinced us to trade personal responsibility for convenience.

  • Knight

    This author subscribes to a theory of technological advancement that results from bad economics. To say that an artificial leaf is 10X as efficient as the real thing is to ignore the fact that the artificial leaf requires thousands of dollars of expensive equipment, and rare elements that were mined across the globe. You simply CANNOT be more efficient than the natural process of planting seed, watching growth.


  • Rafaiel Ovanesyan

    NREL is in Golden, not Boulder.

  • Travis

    50. Knight

    It’s more ‘energy’ efficient not ‘economically’ efficient. (power out/power in)*100

  • clare elliott

    @herpderp-you really need to see the dvd/movie-“who killed the electric car”-it totally speaks to this problem….we could have had electric technology for cars decades ago.

  • peanut

    Maybe I’m ignorant to these things…but most of the problems faced in 3rd world countries are from lack of clean drinking water. Why are we now going to separate water into constituent gases and burn them?

    Amazing technology…but there must be a better way.

  • Amy

    Actually, peanut #54, that’s a very important point, and this device will be able to pull clean water out of dirty muddy toxic water! It can pull the hydrogen and oxygen, and then combine them to make clean water. (There is no device yet, but the prototype can do this.)

  • SuperZombie

    Thats incredible!

    Please check out my videos.

  • Geoffrey

    I disagree. The artificial leaf’s very limited lifetime makes it incredibly inefficient. The article is only taking the statistics it needs to make the product sound great. I would like to see how much energy it requires to develop a leaf before we can decide that this is any more efficient than standard electrolysis.

  • Geno

    It’s not an artificial leaf. It doesn’t produce O2 from CO2!

  • Mark H

    Yes, but how much energy does it cost to MAKE this thing? That’s where nature still wins I bet.

  • Tony

    Does that mean soon we will be able to harvest solar energy more efficiently, and eventually lead to everything powered by sunlight? It would be a viable option for now, what if million years later, Sun dies out, we loss sunlight? Am I being paranoid?

  • Aletostado

    Another great project to be ruined by oil companies.

  • Bending PVC

    This is great news. Top story of 2011 – we’re exiting the fossil fuel age.

  • Uncle B

    Off-Grid folks rejoice! one more tool from technology to make survival better!

  • Chris

    Pretty cool… All this hate on the oil companies… All this hate on oil companies. Believe it or not many of the oil companies are leaders in renewable energy research, simply because they have the funds to invest in. And FYI…. NREL is in Golden,CO not Boulder.

  • jim sadler

    No free market has ever existed anywhere at any time. Free means free of regulation, law taxation and under no force or authority. Since no free market has ever existed and never will exist speculation about the qualities or a free market are not even up to academic speculation. It is more like dreaming of the perfect shape for an Angel’s wing in heaven.
    Yes, some markets are less controlled than others. But the word free is not similar to the word controlled. It has more in common with a word like pregnant. You are either knocked up or you are not. There is no in between state. And no state is silly enough to even try a free market for one single hour.

  • max

    isn’t this electrolysis? i mean if you throw a battery in a tub of water, it will basically do the same thing.

    photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen would be FAR more remarkable, as not only could this work toward reducing the greenhouse effect, but to create an artificial means of photosynthesizing is a step toward artificial life (and by extension figuring out how life could have originated on earth).


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