If you think about all the problems that plague the world at large, especially impoverished countries that don’t have many of the things first-world citizens take for granted, your top five is definitely going to include “Christmas trees don’t power their own decorations.” I mean, you’re spending money on presents already. Who needs to shell out extra dough for a shit-ton of little light bulbs? While this scourge of our holiday season almost certainly isn’t on the mind of biochemist Daniel Nocera, PhD, it will soon be possible thanks to his revolutionary invention.
Nocera, a former MIT professor who entered Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology department last year, saw his decades-long efforts in creating sustainable power come to fruition in an “artificial leaf” that he first revealed in 2011. He recently unveiled a self-healing version that will soon see commercial release through Nocera’s company, Sun Catalytix. Consider those billboards that converted humidity into drinking water, and the impact they could have on countries where clean water isn’t freely available. Nocera’s leaf will give those areas power. Electrical power! Sure, it doesn’t sound that exciting to you because you’re reading this on an electrical device.
In basic terms, the leaf — actually just silicon covered in catalysts — works like so: put it in water, and it separates the hydrogen from the oxygen and stores it in fuel cells. How well does it work? Less than a quart of water could provide 100 watts of electricity, 24 hours a day. The only setback is a need for clean water, as the bacteria would quickly build up otherwise. At American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, Nocera discussed his amazing innovation: