It’s a refrain I’ve heard too many times in the past 10 years: an affordable, efficient new technology to harvest the sun’s energy. Silicon wafers, artificial leaves, fake trees, solar chips: a veritable bounty of cliches shining brightly then fading into the darkness of failed commercialisation.
Forgive me for sounding cynical. I have huge optimism for solar technology to replace fossil fuels as a key source of energy in the 21st century, and scientific innovation will be required for that change. It’s only a matter of time and investment before the cost-effectiveness and simplicity of these units becomes commercially viable. The latest in the long string of announcements came two days ago, when MIT scientist Daniel Nocera described a new, ‘photosynthetic’ chip capable of converting sunlight into energy ten times more efficiently than a plant leaf.
Hard details are yet to be released and I doubt they will be any time soon, as commercialisation of such technology is both sensitive and necessary. Interestingly, the rhetoric surrounding the new technology was aimed at supplying the developing world with energy. It’s a noble ambition, and one I applaud, but I also question the practicality of the rollout. Yes, putting developing countries onto a cleaner energy trajectory with higher living standards is noble, but will they really be the target market? Perhaps the energy consumption of such houses is currently modest enough that a single unit can meet their needs, but a similar statement would not be true for an Australian or American household whose energy needs, and carbon footprint, is much higher.
I wait eagerly for these products to start making their way onto the market, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t affordable and efficient ‘artificial leaves’ in the next 10 years. Until I see them on the shelves, though, I will take each of these press releases with a grain of salt.
Don’t put the salt in your water tank, though. If you do, your artificial leaf won’t work.