Nocera, leader of the research team, explained that the “leaf” mimics the ability of real leaves to produce energy from sunlight and water. The device, however, actually is a simple catalyst-coated wafer of silicon, rather than a complicated reproduction of the photosynthesis mechanism in real leaves.
Dropped into a jar of water and exposed to sunlight, catalysts in the device break water down into its components, hydrogen and oxygen. Those gases bubble up and can be collected and used as fuel to produce electricity in fuel cells.
“Surprisingly, some of the catalysts we’ve developed for use in the artificial leaf device actually heal themselves,” Nocera said. “They are a kind of ‘living catalyst.’ This is an important innovation that eases one of the concerns about initial use of the leaf in developing countries and other remote areas.”