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Harvard University Researchers introduce “Bionic Leaf” that will turn Sunlight into Liquid Fuel

Tapping sunlight to convert it into liquid fuels would reduce the vast areas of land usually used for producing plants that generate biofuels

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An Agricultural field in Argentina. Image source: Wikipedia
  • “Bionic leaf 2.0” is a cost-effective alternative energy source
  • The process includes tapping sunlight to convert it into liquid fuels 
  • This will reduce the need to grow crops like sugarcane and corn that are normally cultivated for biofuels

To combat climate change, a new clean technology “Bionic leaf 2.0”, has been introduced by the researchers at Harvard University in the academic journal Science, on Thursday, June 2.

The study in the recent publication of the journal discusses how “Bionic leaf 2.0” aims to make use of solar panels for splitting molecules of water into oxygen and hydrogen. On separation of the water compounds, hydrogen is moved into a chamber for consumption by bacteria. A specialised metal catalyst and carbon dioxide in the chamber then helps generate a liquid fuel. “The method is an artificial version of photosynthesis in plants,” say scientists.

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Another efficient way of farming. Aquaponics- A Deep Water Culture hydroponics system where plant grow directly into the effluent rich water without a soil medium. Image source: Wikipedia
Another efficient way of farming. Aquaponics- A Deep Water Culture hydroponics system where plant grow directly into the effluent rich water without a soil medium. Image source: Wikipedia

Tapping sunlight to convert it into liquid fuels would reduce the vast areas of land usually used for producing plants that generate biofuels. According to a study by the University of Virginia, about 4 per cent of the world’s farmland is currently under crops for fuel rather than crops for food.

Crops like sugarcane and corn are normally cultivated for biofuels. “Tens of thousands of small-scale farmers across Africa, Asia, and Latin America have been displaced by plantations growing crops to make biofuels,” a Barcelona-based land rights group GRAIN was quoted saying.

“This [new energy source] is not competing with food for agricultural land,” said Harvard University Professor of Energy Daniel Nocera to Thomson Reuters. The land-area requirement to install such solar panels is about one-tenth the size of what would be needed for sugar cane. It would further help reduce emission of greenhouse gases and eventually reduce global warming levels.

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“Bionic leaf 2.0” converts solar energy into liquid fuel with 10 percent efficiency, far higher than the 1 percent efficiency seen in the fastest-growing plants that use a similar process, Nocera added.

Despite the fact that growing biofuels or extracting fossil fuels are cheaper than producing renewable energy, it is believed that the technology has potentials of replacing oil wells or plantations for fuel.

Nocera is also optimistic that “Bionic leaf 2.0” would appeal to investors as a cost-effective alternative energy source if the government decides on pricing carbon dioxide emissions. He adds that a carbon tax to boost US gas prices equalling that of European levels might impel investments in the new technology. However, that is yet to be on the cards.

-by Maariyah (with inputs from VOA), an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @MaariyahSid

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Next Generation Storage Technology May Help EVs and Phones Charge Faster

New tech may make EVs, phones charge quickly, run longer

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Next-generation energy storage technology can help charge your electric cars in almost 10 minutes. Pixabay

Imagine needing less than 10 minutes to fully-charge your electric car or just two minutes for your phone and it lasting the whole day. This could soon be possible with a next-generation energy storage technology that researchers have developed.

While at the proof-of-concept stage, it shows enormous potential as a portable power supply in several practical applications including electric vehicles, phones and wearable technology

The discovery, published in the journal Nature Energy, overcomes the issue faced by high-powered, fast-charging supercapacitors — that they usually cannot hold a large amount of energy in a small space.

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With this technology, your mobile phone would be fully charged in almost 2 minutes. Pixabay

“Our new supercapacitor is extremely promising for next-generation energy storage technology as either a replacement for current battery technology, or for use alongside it, to provide the user with more power,” first author of the study Zhuangnan Li from University College London.

“We designed materials which would give our supercapacitor a high power density — that is how fast it can charge or discharge — and a high energy density — which will determine how long it can run for. Normally, you can only have one of these characteristics but our supercapacitor provides both, which is a critical breakthrough,” Li added.

“Moreover, the supercapacitor can bend to 180 degrees without affecting performance and doesn’t use a liquid electrolyte, which minimises any risk of explosion and makes it perfect for integrating into bendy phones or wearable electronics,” Li said.

A team of chemists, engineers and physicists worked on the new design, which uses an innovative graphene electrode material with pores that can be changed in size to store the charge more efficiently.

Charge EV
“We designed materials which would give our supercapacitor a high power density — that is how fast it can charge or discharge,” said first author of the study Zhuangnan Li from University College London. (Representational Image) Pixabay

This tuning maximises the energy density of the supercapacitor to a record 88.1 Wh/L (Watt-hour per litre), which is the highest ever reported energy density for carbon-based supercapacitors, the study said.

Similar fast-charging commercial technology has a relatively poor energy density of 5-8 Wh/L and traditional slow-charging but long-running lead-acid batteries used in electric vehicles typically have 50-90 Wh/L.

While the supercapacitor developed by the team has a comparable energy density to state-of-the-art value of lead-acid batteries, its power density is two orders of magnitude higher at over 10,000 Watt per litre.

“Successfully storing a huge amount of energy safely in a compact system is a significant step towards improved energy storage technology. We have shown it charges quickly, we can control its output and it has excellent durability and flexibility, making it ideal for development for use in miniaturised electronics and electric vehicles,” senior author and Dean of UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences, Professor Ivan Parkin, said.

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The researchers made electrodes from multiple layers of graphene, creating a dense, but porous material capable of trapping charged ions of different sizes. They characterised it using a range of techniques and found it performed best when the pore sizes matched the diameter of the ions in the electrolyte.

The optimised material, which forms a thin film, was used to build a proof-of-concept device with both a high power and high energy density. (IANS)