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Could This Artificial Leaf Hold the Secret for Future Solar Energy?

As one of the nation’s leading solar racking and mounting companies, we think pretty highly of the recent advances in solar power technology. Solar panels have reached new levels of efficiency and affordability, and our solar racks have evolved accordingly, iteratively improving a system that would have seemed impossibly space-aged just 30 or 40 years ago.

But solar energy is way older than most people think it is. Sure, the photovoltaic effect was first measured in the mid-1800s and it wasn’t until the 1940s that the invention of the solar cell put it to practical use, but nature has been using solar energy for millions of years. Plants, through the process of photosynthesis, capture sunlight and use it in combination with water and carbon dioxide to produce sustainable energy.

Now, on a much larger scale, scientists are hoping to replicate this natural function to produce a new kind of energy from the sun. Traditional solar cells use semiconducting materials like silicon to absorb incoming photons, which causes the excitement of electrons which can then be forced into a current.

This new artificial leaf functions closer to the photosynthesis side of things. Using two electrodes (and a membrane separating those electrodes), the system uses the power of sunlight to oxidize molecules of water. The oxidation process removes oxygen gas and separates hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons. From there, those protons and electrons are reassembled to form hydrogen gas, which is then kept separate from the oxygen gas via the membrane and is freed up to be used as fuel.

The device still needs work before it can be rolled out on a large scale; the two big problems for now seem to be the cost efficiency of the device components and the durability or lifespan of the entire structure. It could be years, or even decades, before the technology is rolled out in full force.

Until then, solar panels remain the undisputed kings of the solar energy world, and our racks keep making them more and more efficient. Contact us to learn more about what we’re doing to maximize the potential of solar energy.