NASA Invests in Power Plants. . . But Not as You Know Them

Nature inspiring science

Plants are incredibly adept at changing sunlight into energy. This natural talent has inspired scientists to think about new ways of harnessing solar power. Whilst solar panels are the most effective artificial method for converting sunlight into energy, it’s still notoriously difficult to store that energy when the sun isn’t shining. This is where plants come in. Researchers, inspired by photosynthesis, are sowing the seeds for the development of bionic leaves that work as storage systems. It might sound like science fiction, but NASA is certainly taking it seriously. The space agency has invested in a project based at Berkeley that focuses on turning artificial leaves into mini energy factories. . . power plants, so to speak. So, can we really copy plant photosynthesis, and how disruptive will it be?

Fake it til you make it

We’ve known that plants can be used to generate energy for some time. There are already tubular systems which gather electricity from plant beds themselves, but actually trying to recreate the photosynthesis processes is something entirely different. For many years, these efforts were not particularly successful. In 2011, Dan Nocera of Harvard University revealed a fake leaf that fused the natural process of photosynthesis with human tech to convert H2O into fuel. It was made from inexpensive materials, and worked in untreated water. The only problem was, Nocera’s silicon leaf could only produce oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen isn’t massively useful, and there’s not exactly a shortage of oxygen either. In 2016, Nocera had created another prototype which was twice as efficient as plants and was closer to regular solar panel fuel conversion than ever before. Similar experiments at Berkeley took things a stage further. A research team funded by NASA and led by Peidong Yang has discovered that bacteria can grow on silicon nanowires, creating a semi conductive surface. This enables a bionic photosynthesis system fuelled by the bacteria. As well as harnessing and storing energy, this also produces oxygen and hydrogen. At the moment, the system only operates at under three per cent efficiency. Nonetheless, Yang is confident that this could be drastically improved by making cells more complex.

How disruptive are power plants?

Nocera’s experiments have proved that silicon leaves can create fuel, but not particularly useful ones. However, if bionic leaves could be developed to produce different fuels, then we could be looking at a system for general chemical synthesis and chemical compounds are absolutely vital to countless industries. Possible applications include plastics for manufacturing, drugs for healthcare, materials for bioengineering and FoodTech solutions. There are even extraterrestrial opportunities, as compounds could be used to make resources for space. Plus, if you can make the production of compounds cheaper, then the price of compounds themselves will drop. Unlike other disruptive advancements, this isn’t going to threaten existing technology. Solar panels are still the most efficient method we have of converting sunlight into energy, but they lack storage capacity. Couple nature inspired power plants with incumbent solar tech, and you have a convincing argument for the continued adoption of renewable energy over fossil fuels. It seems like these disruptive little leaves will largely bring about positive change to renewable adoption, energy storage and the production of useful resources. That being said, it’s easy to get carried away. The efficiency of these systems is still low, and this needs to improve before commercial applications become a reality.

The bionic leaves under development in the US could help to enhance existing solar energy solutions and encourage the adoption of renewable power. Both Yang and Nocera aim to fuse the ability of the natural world with human technology to improve power storage, which is one of the biggest obstacles to renewable energy. Although their work is still confined to university laboratories, it has promising potential applications within numerous other industries. As well as accelerating the move away from fossil fuels, fake photosynthesis is yet another example of how the natural world can provide inspiration for innovation. Perhaps legacy energy companies should take a leaf out of Harvard and Berkeley’s book.

Will legacy providers (of both renewable and non-renewable energy) take fake photosynthesis seriously? Do bionic leaves present a solution to energy storage issues? Which other industries could benefit from renewable chemical synthesis? Share your thoughts and opinions.