Innovation Watch: Ethical Technology

A widely-used gas currently produced from fossil fuels can instead be made by an ‘artificial leaf’ that uses only sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. We look at this potential route to a sustainable replacement to petrol.

As the world heads towards electric cars and most people – the sane ones at least – recognise that tackling climate change is a vital challenge ahead of us, we’re leaning on technology to help us. The catch is that solutions need to be as effective, if not more so, than our current solutions.

Enter the artificial leaf, which has set a new benchmark in the field of solar fuels, after researchers at the University of Cambridge demonstrated that it can directly produce a gas – called syngas – in a sustainable and simple way. Unlike the current industrial processes for producing syngas, the leaf does not release any additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The results are reported in the journal Nature Materials.

“You may not have heard of syngas itself but every day, you consume products that were created using it. Being able to produce it sustainably would be a critical step in closing the global carbon cycle and establishing a sustainable chemical and fuel industry,” said senior author Professor Erwin Reisner from Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, who has spent seven years working towards this goal.

Best of all, rather than running on fossil fuels, the artificial leaf is powered by sunlight, and still works efficiently on cloudy and overcast days. It means it’ll be an effective technology to use even away from hot and sunny countries.

The next step for the researchers is to turn this technology into a way to produce a sustainable liquid fuel alternative to petrol.