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Cool Green Tech
A Bionic Leaf Could Be Our New Biofuel

Biofuels are one of the greatest green boondoggles—and that’s certainly saying something—but there’s a promising new alternative technology that could soon be coming our way, courtesy of Harvard scientists. Reuters reports:

Dubbed “bionic leaf 2.0”, the technology uses solar panels to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, the scientists said in a study published in the journal Science. Once separated, hydrogen is moved into a chamber where it is consumed by bacteria, and with help from a special metal catalyst and carbon dioxide, the process generates liquid fuel.

The method is an artificial version of the photosynthesis process plants use to make energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, scientists said. If it becomes economically viable, the technology could replace oil wells or plantations where food crops are grown for fuel, the study’s lead author said. […]

“The (land) footprint these solar panels need is about one tenth the size of what you would need for sugar cane,” [Harvard University Professor of Energy Daniel Nocera] said…”Bionic leaf 2.0″ converts solar energy into liquid fuel with 10 percent efficiency, far higher than the 1 percent efficiency seen in the fastest-growing plants that use a similar process, Nocera added.

By the researchers own admission, this isn’t a cost-effective solution at the moment—they say it would take a carbon tax to make it economically viable—but it still represents an important improvement on a woefully inefficient way of producing fuel. We currently devote huge acreages to crops being grown with the express purpose of being distilled into biofuels, and here in the United States that process is government mandated, thanks to the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard. The problem is, most of that biofuel comes from distilled corn, and corn ethanol exists in that rare policy sour spot where it makes no sense from just about every angle: it raises global food prices, starving the world’s poor; it costs American drivers billions of dollars at the pump; it kills wild bee populations; and perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t lower emissions. Even Al Gore recognizes that “[f]irst-generation ethanol was a mistake.”

These new “bionic leaves” are generations (plural) ahead of corn ethanol in terms of how they convert the sun’s radiant energy into usable fuel. They are emblematic of a creative and paradigm-breaking new approach to how we harness that energy; it’s not inconceivable that one day we’ll cut out industrial processes by growing products in fields. We won’t be holding our breath for their widespread deployment anytime soon—costs have to come down first—but we can look ahead with guarded optimism at this exciting new branch of research.

Policymakers around the world, take note: you’re better off funding the research and development of new solar technologies like this one than you are propping up the current crop of panels that can’t compete with fossil fuels without heavy government assistance.

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  • rheddles

    Just say no to Genetically Modified Energy (GME). It seems pretty clear that this Frankenenergy will destroy our food supply as these plants cross breed and contaminated wheat turns our bread into diesel fuel. Oh the horror, oh the humanity.

  • CaliforniaStark

    If they find an economically successful why to split water and produce hydrogen, wouldn’t it make more sense to just use the hydrogen directly to power full cells rather than go through several additional steps to make it liquid fuel?

    • f1b0nacc1

      Hydrogen is a pain to store and transport, liquid fuel is not. The loss of efficiency is more than offset by the ease of logistics

      • CaliforniaStark

        Respectfully don’t agree. The fuel cells could be located at where electrolysis takes place, so transportation would not be an issue. The hydrogen could be stored in tanks, and used 24/7. Special storage tanks do exist, and are used in hydrogen powered cars.

        Also, hydrogen can be transported in natural gas pipelines; as was done in Germany in the early 20th century.

        I regularly use a CNG powered truck, and would have no problem switching to a hydrogen fueled vehicle if an adequate fueling infrastructure was developed, which involves a breakthrough in the electrolysis process. Am skeptical, but if the “bionic leaf” concept is found to work, then it is a step in the right direction. It helps resolve the issue of intermittency involved with existing solar power.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Hydrogen leaks through anything over time, so even special storage tanks are going to experience loss and with it severe safety issues. The piping and handling of hydrogen (especially under high pressure, which is the only way you are going to be able to keep sufficient quantities of it in anything close to a reasonable volume) is problematic at best, and orders of magnitude more difficult than handling liquid fuels. Yes, you can ship hydrogen in a pipeline, but you have the same leakage problems and safety issues, both far more serious than with natural gas.

          I see no problem with CNG or LNG or better yet, propane (full disclosure, I work for an energy company that specializes in propane), but the infrastructure for handling hydrogen is a far, far more challenging thing, and simply not a practical option. The efficiency of liquid fuels is unquestionably lower (and I am skeptical of the bionic leaf as well, though I would be delighted if it comes to pass), but the advantages in handling and storage, not to mention transportation outweigh any efficiency advantages that Hydrogen has to offer.

          • CaliforniaStark

            You raise a lot of good points, we may not agree, but enjoyed the knowledgeable discussion.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Thank you, that was most gracious, and I hope you know I share the sentiment

          • rheddles

            Seriously, could you sell me on propane vs. any type of NG? My understanding is that it is inferior; dirtier, more explosive, more expensive.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I use it for grilling, and it pays my bills. Other than that, I have no real interest in it. Actually my company is moving heavily into Fracking support now, so I suspect that they might agree with you (grin)….

          • CaliforniaStark

            Actually, propane and natural gas are closely related, and used interchangeably. You can purchase a truck that runs on both CNG and propane. The advantage is in areas where there are not CNG fueling stations, propane is often available. For example, if you drive from Los Angeles to Denver, there are ample CNG stations along the route; from Los Angeles to Seattle there are major gaps with no CNG stations, but there is available propane. When gasoline was in the $4.00 price range, it was a joy to fill up a truck with CNG at the equivalent price of about $1.60 a gallon.


            A mix of about 55% propane and about 45% air creates what is know as synthetic natural gas; in some places propane is used as a standby for when natural gas is not available, and converted to synthetic gas when needed.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    None of these alternative energy boondoggles are economically feasible. If they were feasible the free market would be all over them. So in the interest of saving Taxpayers money, none of them should be funded, so that the free market can do what it does best, and it doesn’t cost the Taxpayer one red cent.

  • Rick Johnson

    Any alternative fuel that requires a subsidy or tax to make economically viable isn’t an alternative. It’s just another expensive Green joke.

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