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The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station.

‘One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.’

The device bears no resemblance to Mother Nature’s counterparts on oaks, maples and other green plants, which scientists have used as the model for their efforts to develop this new genre of solar cells.

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, 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.

Nocera, who is with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out that the ‘artificial leaf’ is not a new concept.

The first artificial leaf was developed more than a decade ago by John Turner of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

Although highly efficient at carrying out photosynthesis, Turner’s device was impractical for wider use, as it was composed of rare, expensive metals and was highly unstable — with a lifespan of barely one day.

Nocera’s new leaf overcomes these problems.

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If work by a team of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge pans out, bioluminescent trees could one day be giving our streets this dreamlike look. The students have taken the first step on this road by developing genetic tools that allow bioluminescence traits to be easily transferred into an organism.

Nature is full of glow-in-the-dark critters, but their shine is feeble – far too weak to read by, for example. To boost this light, the team, who were participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM), modified genetic material from fireflies and the luminescent marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri to boost the production and activity of light-yielding enzymes. They then made further modifications to create genetic components or “BioBricks” that can be inserted into a genome.

The team managed to produce a range of colours by putting these genes into the Escherichia coli bacterium. They found that a volume of bacterial culture about the size of a regular wine bottle gave off enough light to read by.

“We didn’t end up making bioluminescent trees, which was the inspiration for the project,” says team member Theo Sanderson, who is studying genetics. “But we decided to make a set of parts that would allow future researchers to use bioluminescence more effectively.” The team presented its findings earlier this month at the iGEM Jamboree, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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