Electrical engineers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) are building artificial nanotrees that mimic real life plants to take in sunlight, water and CO2 and produce hydrogen fuel. Now, I’ve talked about the artificial leaf being developed several times before for the same purposes.
The engineers at UCSD, however, are using cheap materials such as zinc oxide and silicon to deliver cheap hydrogen fuel, hopefully, one day on a massive scale.
According to UCSD, “The trees’ vertical structure and branches are keys to capturing the maximum amount of solar energy … That’s because the vertical structure of trees grabs and adsorbs light while flat surfaces simply reflect it … By harvesting more sun light using the vertical nanotree structure, Wang’s team has developed a way to produce more hydrogen fuel efficiently compared to planar counterparts.”
This is not the first time that scientists have used artificial trees for technological purposes. Where I live cell phone trees are a dime a dozen reflecting signals to our Android phones and iPhones. So, the future prospect of building tiny forests of nanotrees does have its roots, so to speak, in current trends in science towards replicating nature, specifically leaves and trees.
The UCSC project is interesting in another aspect, too. As with real life trees, the nanotrees also collect CO2 from the atmosphere and with large enough installations of this type of technology will help clean some of the CO2 from the atmosphere.
The trick will be as with all science projects is scaling up and commercializing this technology. If I were a betting man I would say that within the next 5 years artificial leaves and trees will be playing a large role in renewable hydrogen fuel production.