New analysis points the way to optimizing efficiency of an integrated system for harvesting sunlight to make storable fuel. Bringing the concept of an “artificial leaf” closer to reality, a team of researchers at MIT has published a detailed analysis of all the factors that could limit the efficiency of such a system.
The new analysis lays out a roadmap for a research program to improve the efficiency of these systems, and could quickly lead to the production of a practical, inexpensive and commercially viable prototype. Such a system would use sunlight to produce a storable fuel, such as hydrogen, instead of electricity for
immediate use. This fuel could then be used on demand to generate electricity through a fuel cell or other device. This process would liberate solar energy for use when the sun isn’t shining, and open up a host of potential new applications.

The new work is described in a paper this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, former MIT professor Daniel Nocera (now at Harvard University), MIT postdoc Mark Winkler (now at IBM) and former MIT graduate student Casandra Cox (now at Harvard). It follows up on 2011 research that produced a “proof of concept” of an artificial leaf — a small device that, when placed in a container of water and exposed to sunlight, would produce bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen.

The device combines two technologies: a standard silicon solar cell, which converts sunlight into electricity, and chemical catalysts applied to each side of the cell. Together, these would create an electrochemical device that uses an electric current to split atoms of hydrogen and oxygen from the water molecules surrounding them. The goal is to produce an inexpensive, self-contained system that could be built from abundant materials. Nocera has long advocated such devices as a means of bringing electricity to billions of people, mostly in the developing world, who now have little or no access to it.

An 'artificial leaf' made by Daniel Nocera and his team, using a silicon solar cell with novel catalyst materials bonded to its two sides, is shown in a container of water with light (simulating sunlight) shining on it. The light generates a flow of electricity that causes the water molecules, with the help of the catalysts, to split into oxygen and hydrogen, which bubble up from the two surfaces. Video courtesy of the Nocera Lab/Sun Catalytix

The original demonstration leaf, in 2011, had low efficiencies, converting less than 4.7 percent of sunlight into fuel, Buonassisi says. But the team’s new analysis shows that efficiencies of 16 percent or more should now be possible using single-bandgap semiconductors, such as crystalline silicon. The key to obtaining high solar-to-fuel efficiencies is to combine the right solar cells and catalyst — a matchmaking activity best guided by a roadmap. The approach presented by the team allows for each component of the artificial leaf to be tested individually, then combined.

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Singapore National Research Foundation through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, and the Chesonis Family Foundation.

Recreated from original blog post authored by Nilesh Y. Jadhav at

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