The Real Leaf is from MIT

The Nissan Leaf is a nice bit of marketing, but at the end of the day I don’t think this is the car of the future.

The problem is the battery. Even if we can make better ones, they are still going to weigh a lot. Will they weigh as much as a motor would? Well, that depends.

If the motor is a fuel cell, the answer is probably yes. Because there are great things happening in fuel cells. Replace the platinum in a fuel cell with plastic, or sputter the metal onto a lighter substrate, and you can start making lighter, more powerful cells that drive cars well.

Of course, then you have the problem of fuel for the fuel cell. Fuel cells run on hydrogen. Hydrogen can be obtained from water, leaving oxygen as the “pollutant.” But that takes electricity. Right now the primary means of obtaining hydrogen is with natural gas, and the primary use of it is in ammonia. That’s why there are ammonia pipelines running from the U.S. Gulf Coast to the farm country of the Great Plains.

The significance of Daniel Nocera of MIT’s latest breakthrough  is that he solves that problem. (The picture is from his page at MIT.) The headlines call it an artificial leaf  but it’s really just a better way of producing hydrogen directly from the Sun.

Quoting directly from the press release:

The device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, Nocera said. It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen and oxygen gases would be stored in a fuel cell, which uses those two materials to produce electricity, located either on top of the house or beside it.

What’s really cool about Nocera’s design is its efficiency. He says it’s 10 times more efficient than a natural leaf in turning water into gas, and that he thinks he can turn that efficiency up much higher. Unlike previous artificial leaves, Nocera’s new leaf is also made out of inexpensive materials, including new catalysts made from nickel and cobalt.

It will take time to turn this leaf into a functional product, but not too much time. I think it will mainly revolutionize transportation.

What do you think?

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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