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Scientists mimic plants with device that produces clean water and fuel: ‘These are the sorts of solutions we will need’

“A device that could work using contaminated water could solve two problems at once.”

"A device that could work using contaminated water could solve two problems at once."

Photo Credit: University of Cambridge

Cambridge University researchers are again making headlines in science journals for their artificial leaf technology

Building off prior breakthroughs, the experts have created floating units that leverage photosynthesis to make fresh water and hydrogen fuel, according to a lab report from the university. 

The human-made leaves could be meaningful for remote areas of the world where clean water is scarce. 

“A device that could work using contaminated water could solve two problems at once: it could split water to make clean fuel, and it could make clean drinking water,” study co-lead author Ariffin Mohamad Annuar said in the lab report. 

It works in a way similar to how plants turn sunlight into food, a process that researchers at other institutions have been trying to recreate, in some cases to sustain life on Mars. 

At Cambridge, the experts have clear terrestrial benefits in mind. The university report states that 1.8 billion people worldwide don’t have clean water to drink.  

The experts tested their unit on the River Cam, which is not exactly pristine waters. The tech involves placing a photocatalyst on a nanostructured carbon mesh. While likely not an easy setup to visualize, it’s a combination that fosters the absorption of light and heat. The floating device works with seawater, too, according to the research. 

The contraption, which looks like a small sensor, uses a large part of the solar spectrum to create vapor and split water at the molecular level. This separates the hydrogen, all per Cambridge. An earlier version of the tech couldn’t handle dirty water, which contaminated the process.

“This way, we’re making better use of the light — we get the vapor for hydrogen production, and the rest is water vapor,” research group member Chanon Pornrungroj said in the lab report. “This way, we’re truly mimicking a real leaf, since we’ve now been able to incorporate the process of transpiration.”

In terms of fuel production, hydrogen burns more cleanly and is becoming a common power source, even for planes. Sustainable fuel use and smart decisions are key ways to create a more planet-friendly transportation system (while saving money, too.) 

The Cambridge experts also envision their artificial photosynthesis helping families, especially in remote locations off the grid. The report cites pollution created when dirty fuels, including kerosene, are used to cook indoors. Sadly, smoke from those cooking fires contributes to the early deaths of 3.8 million people each year, according to the United Nations. Some of the deaths may have been prevented if a cleaner fuel like hydrogen was available, the university team states.  

“Our device is still a proof of principle, but these are the sorts of solutions we will need if we’re going to develop a truly circular economy and sustainable future,” research lead Erwin Reisner said in the lab report. “The climate crisis and issues around pollution and health are closely related, and developing an approach that could help address both would be a game-changer for so many people.”

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