Harvard’s ‘bionic leaf’ has cosmetics potential - turning sunlight into liquid fuel

By Michelle Yeomans

- Last updated on GMT

Harvard’s ‘bionic leaf’ has cosmetics potential - turning sunlight into liquid fuel

Related tags Oxygen Photosynthesis

Scientists at Harvard Medical School say they have developed an artificial photosynthesis system that can convert solar energy to biomass with more efficiency than that of the fastest growing plants.

The system has the ability to make any downstream carbon-based molecule so it has the potential to be used in applications beyond generating usable fuels.

Dubbed the ‘bionic leaf 2.0’, the system has spent some time in the development stages and the latest round has seen it extend its ability to turn sunlight and water into electricity and liquid fuels with 10 per cent efficiency compared to the one per cent seen in the fastest-growing plants.

Challenge of reactive oxygen species

According to one of the authors of the research published in Science​, Daniel Nocera, professor of energy at Harvard University, challenges came in the form of reactive oxygen species, molecules that attacked and destroyed the bacteria’s DNA.

To avoid that this time around, researchers ran the system at abnormally high voltages, resulting in reduced efficiency.

Nocera and colleagues were also able to expand the portfolio of the system to include isobutanol and isopentanol as well as create a bio-plastic precursor, a process first demonstrated by Professor Anthony Sinskey of MIT.

New catalyst has advantages

The new catalyst comes with another advantage — its chemical design allows it to ‘self-heal’ meaning it won’t leach material into solution.

While there may be room for additional increases in efficiency, Nocera says the system is already effective enough to consider commercial applications, but within a different model for technology translation.

Cost effective versions of the real thing is no stranger to the cosmetics industry…

The industry has been developing and replicating natural ingredients for years, helping to expand the category in a sustainable and cost-efficient way, while also enhancing the efficacy of many ingredients. 

Game changing technology

The more natural processes of biotechnology / fermentation and production of ingredients by micro-algae are the most game changing technologies out there today.

Cosmetic companies can usually quantify the reduction in things like carbon footprint, water footprint, energy and land usage to show the sustainability benefits.

However, it is also the case that very specific & active ingredients can be produced in instances where they cannot be extracted from plants at a commercial cost.

Related topics Formulation & Science

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