Leaf lamina. The leaf architecture probably ar...

As part of my innovation consulting efforts, I’m getting more heavily involved in the area of biomimicry and the idea of using nature as a guide to providing technological insights. The exploration of nature and its processes to yield innovative solutions to complex problems is an interesting and novel approach that not only researchers, but also some companies, are formally using as another way to “think outside the box” to identify business opportunities.

I’ll have more on how my company is helping drive the adoption of nature-inspired innovation approaches in future articles, but whenever I come across examples that illustrate some of the potential successes I would like to share them.

As I shared in my newspaper column this month, an article appeared recently in the American Chemical Society Journal Accounts of Chemical Research on some amazing progress that is being made in mimicking part of the process of natural photosynthesis. Call it an “artificial leaf” if you will.

As we all learn in high school, photosynthesis is the process where plants convert light from the sun, water from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air into food sugars for the plant and oxygen that we can breath. The oxygen that is produced is actually split off from water molecules. If the remaining hydrogen can be recovered in a synthetic process it might be an attractive and plentiful source of fuel energy for developing countries.

That is precisely what Daniel Nocera and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done. His synthetic leaf puts a light collector between two inexpensive chemical films where oxygen and hydrogen bubble away when the leaf is placed in water.

Up until now similar processes have used prohibitively expensive platinum or semiconductor compounds. In contrast the materials used in Nocera’s device are claimed to be naturally abundant — a critical factor in the research team’s goal is to help find ways to deliver abundant energy to the worlds undeveloped and poverty stricken populations.

Beyond the efforts of Nocera, scientists at the University of Toronto and the University of California at Berkeley are looking past the chemistry and into the mysterious realm of the quantum physics of photosynthesis. Here they are concerned with understanding, on the smallest scales of time and distance, how a plant captures, channels, and stores the energy of the millions of billions of photons that strike a leaf every second.

The hope is that insights from the research could yield tiny molecular circuits that efficiently transport energy over long distances.

Who knows where research into artificial photosynthesis will lead and what practical innovations will be discovered? What we do know is that the potential of looking at the wonders of nature for help in solving complex human problems is exciting, and I’m looking forward to sharing more examples of the progress.

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