This bio-inspired leaf generates more power than solar panels

Researchers have developed a leaf-inspired design that captures solar energy and generates freshwater, emulating real plant processes.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The PV leaf.jpg
The PV leaf.

Gan Huang/Imperial 

Researchers from Imperial College London have invented a new leaf-like design that collects and generates photovoltaic solar energy and produces freshwater by mimicking the processes found in real plants.

This is according to a press release by the institution published on Tuesday.

The PV-leaf

Called PV-leaf, the innovation “uses low-cost materials and could inspire the next generation of renewable energy technologies.”

Studies have already found that PV-leaves can “generate over 10 percent more electricity compared to conventional solar panels, which lose up to 70 percent of the incoming solar energy to the environment.”

The invention also has the capacity to produce over 40 billion cubic meters of freshwater a year by 2050 if deployed with efficiency.

“This innovative design holds tremendous potential for significantly enhancing the performance of solar panels, while also ensuring cost-effectiveness and practicality,” said Dr Gan Huang, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and author of the new study.

The artificial leaf has been designed to remove the need for pumps, fans, control units and expensive porous materials. It can also provide thermal energy, adapt to a variety of solar conditions and tolerate ambient temperatures.

“Implementing this innovative leaf-like design could help expedite the global energy transition, while addressing two pressing global challenges: the need for increased energy and freshwater,” said Professor Christos Markides, Head of Clean Energy Processes Laboratory, and author of the study.

Mimicking real leaves

The PV-leaf owes its basis to real leaves and mimics their process of transpiration which enables plants to move water from their roots to the end of their leaves.

Water can therefore move, distribute and evaporate through the PV-leaf while natural fibers mimic leaf vein bundles and hydrogels simulate sponge cells to effectively remove heat from solar PV cells.

This is not the first time scientists have taken inspiration from plants to create energy.

In October of 2019, a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge engineered an 'artificial leaf' which could create a clean gas, called syngas, using only sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. 

Then, in August of 2020, researchers from the same institution developed floating 'artificial leaves' inspired by photosynthesis to generate clean fuels from sunlight and water. The autonomous devices were reported at the time as being light enough to float and would provide a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels without taking up space on land like traditional solar panels.

Could leaves possibly provide the foundation to move away from polluting fuels to cleaner greener options?

The study was published in Nature Communications.

Study Abstract:

Most solar energy incident (>70%) upon commercial photovoltaic panels is dissipated as heat, increasing their operating temperature, and leading to significant deterioration in electrical performance. The solar utilisation efficiency of commercial photovoltaic panels is typically below 25%. Here, we demonstrate a hybrid multi-generation photovoltaic leaf concept that employs a biomimetic transpiration structure made of eco-friendly, low-cost and widely-available materials for effective passive thermal management and multi-generation. We demonstrate experimentally that bio-inspired transpiration can remove ~590 W/m2 of heat from a photovoltaic cell, reducing the cell temperature by ~26 °C under an irradiance of 1000 W/m2, and resulting in a relatively 13.6% increase in electrical efficiency. Furthermore, the photovoltaic leaf is capable of synergistically utilising the recovered heat to co-generate additional thermal energy and freshwater simultaneously within the same component, significantly elevating the overall solar utilisation efficiency from 13.2% to over 74.5%, along with over 1.1 L/h/m2 of clean water.

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