Sepp Hasslberger: Daniel Nocera Achieves Holy Grail of Energy Research — a Silicon Leaf that Splits Water

05 Energy
Sepp Hasslberger
Sepp Hasslberger

Simple and efficient – producing hydrogen and oxygen from water by use of light and catalysts. They say electricity is cheap and no one wants the new technology, so Nocera is setting his sights on the developing world…

The artificial leaf that could power the world

Cambridge, MA (CNN) — As Daniel Nocera gazed down on one of his experiments in what has come to be known as the “holy grail” of energy research, his response was to shrug:

“Oh, that can't be right.”

It was a glass of tap water with a thumb-sized strip of silicon floating in it. When he held the glass up to the light, the strip began to gently bubble. It seemed to be splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. But this would mean you could take any tub of water and — with no more than a few cheap materials and a little light from the sun — produce two incredibly powerful fuels. It couldn't be right. Professor Nocera went back and, for 8 months, tried to prove himself wrong.

The artificial leaf: better than nature
Scientists had split water before. By 1870, electrolysis using platinum electrodes and vast electrical currents could achieve the feat. In the 20th century, too, simpler methods had been developed which used sunlight to power the reaction — but these, too, relied on prohibitively costly metals. Nocera's “artificial leaf” is different.

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