If you want to impress your friends with a little-known but totally epic acronym it is "AIL" the Artificial Inorganic Leaf. This week, thousands of scientists descended upon San Francisco for the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, and one of the papers they heard was on AIL technology presented by a research team from the Shanghai Jiaotong University in China.

Using sunlight to split water into its components — hydrogen and oxygen — is one of the most promising methods for creating a sustainable, safe and cheap alternative to fossil fuels. And there is no machine more efficient at using sunlight than the humble leaf. Through photosynthesis, leaves use the power of sunlight to assemble sugars using only carbon dioxide, oxygen and water. 

The Shanghai team has been working with leaf structures to better understand the process in order to replicate a man-made version of the leaf that could be adapted to do the inverse — splitting water to make hydrogen fuel — using a typical photocatalyst like titanium dioxide (one of the most abundant minerals on Earth). 

By "biotemplating" the titanium dioxide to mimic the light harvesting structures of the leaf (and adding platinum nanoparticles to magnify the effect) the research team was able to get 80x the efficiency of current technologies for producing hydrogen gas. As the lead researcher said:

Our results may represent an important first step towards the design of novel artificial solar energy transduction systems based on natural paradigms, particularly based on exploring and mimicking the structural design. Nature still has much to teach us, and human ingenuity can modify the principles of natural systems for enhanced utility.
In the end, an intriguing partnership between cutting-edge science and the most ancient of organic technologies — photosynthesis — may prove to have the real answer for powering a clean future.

via: Science Daily