Scientists Create an Artificial Leaf That Creates Clean Gas, Could Replace Petrol

Scientists discover a way to sustainably create syngas.
Fabienne Lang

A team of scientists from the University of Cambridge has created an 'artificial leaf,' which could be the answer to cleaner petrol in the future. 

Currently, we use gas that is produced by fossil fuels, but as the pressing questions around sustainability and the environment ring loud and clear, alternatives need to be found and used.

This 'artificial leaf' may be one answer.

The study was published in Nature Materials.


Sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water

All that is needed for this 'leaf' to create the clean gas, called syngas, is sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. It's simple, and it's sustainable. 

Even though it requires sunlight, unlike many solar panels, this artificial leaf can still function on cloudy days. Furthermore, unlike the current industrial processes to create syngas, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, this leaf does not. 

Scientists Create an Artificial Leaf That Creates Clean Gas, Could Replace Petrol
The first author of the study, Virgil Andrei, holds up the artificial leaf. Source: Sarah Collins/University of Cambridge

Syngas has many beneficial uses. It primarily produces commodities such as fuel, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and fertilizers. 

Senior author of the study, Erwin Reisner from Cambridge's Department of Chemistry, said: "you may not have heard of syngas itself, but every day, you consume products that were created using it. Being able to produce it sustainably would be a critical step in closing the global carbon cycle and establishing a sustainable chemical and fuel industry."


Staying true to the eco-friendly matter at hand, the scientists took inspiration from nature and copied the format of photosynthesis. Plants use this natural process that uses sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into food. 

Scientists Create an Artificial Leaf That Creates Clean Gas, Could Replace Petrol
Sustainable closed-cycle system vs. the fossil cycle. Source: Sarah Collins/University of Cambridge

It's much of the same with the artificial leaf. The leaf has two light absorbers that are combined with a catalyst made from cobalt. 

Once immersed in water, one of the light absorbers uses the catalyst to create oxygen, and the other reduces the carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

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A surprise and welcome element the scientists discovered during their research was that the system worked even without much sunlight. 

"This means you are not limited to using this technology just in warm countries, or only operating the process during the summer months," said University of Cambridge Ph.D. student, Virgil Andrei, the first author of the study. "You could use it from dawn until dusk, anywhere in the world."

Scientists Create an Artificial Leaf That Creates Clean Gas, Could Replace Petrol
Lead authors of the study, Virgil Andrei (to the left), and Erwin Reisner (to the right). Source: Sarah Collins/University of Cambridge

Now, the team is looking at methods to use their new technology to create a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol. 

Reisner understands the importance of this future sustainable petrol, as he said: "There is a major demand for liquid fuels to power heavy transport, shipping, and aviation sustainably." 

Currently, electricity can only satisfy 25% of our global energy demand. It's time to create and push forward technological innovations such as the artificial leaf. 

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