Photosynthetic: The bionic leaf turning sunlight into liquid fuel

Scientists have co-created a system that harnesses solar energy to split water molecules and hydrogen-eating bacteria to produce liquid fuels, at a rate considerably better than natural photosynthesis.

Created by Daniel Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood professor of energy at Harvard University, and Pamela Silver, the Elliott T and Onie H Adams professor of biochemistry and systems biology at Harvard Medical School, the system, named bionic leaf 2.0, builds on previous work by Nocera, Silver and others, which was capable of creating solvent isopropanol with solar energy, but was limited in a number of areas.

Primarily, the previous attempt was challenged by the fact that the catalyst being used to produce hydrogen also created reactive oxygen species, a form of molecule that would attack and destroy the bacterial DNA inherent to the system.

In order to overcome this challenge, the team were forced to run the system at voltages that reduced efficiency. For 2.0, they have now developed a new catalyst, comprised of a cobalt-phosphorous alloy, that doesn’t make the reactive oxygen species that hindered their previous efforts.

The system is ready for commercial applications, and could in the future be used to generate liquid fuels

The system is ready for commercial applications, and could in the future be used to generate liquid fuels

The increase in efficiency is dramatic. The fastest growing plants convert solar energy into biomass at a 1% rate of efficiency. Bionic leaf 2.0, however, achieves the same process, and more, with 10% efficiency.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system. Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature,” said Nocera.

The potential of the system is huge. Even it just its second iteration, its portfolio has been expanded to include isobutanol, isopentanol and PHB, a bio-plastic precursor.

Additionally, the new catalyst’s chemical design comes with the bonus of the system being able to “self-heal”, meaning that there is no risk of material leeching into solution.

As pointed out by Silver, the genius of this system is that, “these catalysts are totally biologically compatible.”

The bionic leaf is works at 10% efficiency, unlike natural photosynthesis, which only works at 1% efficiency at most

The bionic leaf is works at 10% efficiency, unlike natural photosynthesis, which only works at 1% efficiency at most

There may be the chance of even greater increases in efficiency in the future but, for now, Nocera considers the system efficient enough to consider commercial applications and, in conjunction with Harvard’s First 100 Watts program, is looking to continue developing the technology and its applications in nations such as India.

Nocera has said that the new system is in many ways the fulfilment of the initial promise of his “artificial leaf”, a project that used solar power to split water to make hydrogen fuel. The versatility of the new system, however, far exceeds the original.

“The beauty of biology is it’s the world’s greatest chemist – biology can do chemistry we can’t do easily,” Silver said.

“In principle, we have a platform that can make any downstream carbon-based molecule. So this has the potential to be incredibly versatile.”

In the face of a collapsing market, Acer goes once more unto the smartwatch breach

Despite the fact that smartwatches are generally seeing their sales plummet, Acer has decided to release a new product into the collapsing market. Taking “an elegant approach to fitness”, the Leap Ware smartwatch seems to be fairly standard fare, using an array of fitness-tracking sensors in combination with an app to keep tabs on all of the various statistics the sensors provide.

“As the pace of modern lifestyles become ever more hectic, people demand technology that can keep them on track and motivated to pursue their goals,” said MH Wang, general manager of Smart Device Products in Acer’s IT Products Business.

“The new Acer Leap Ware is designed to act as a virtual coach to help people go, track, and share, sending them reminders and alerts when they need them the most.”

Acer obviously has to promote its product but the above statement seems somewhat bizarrely unaware of the fact that not only is the company offering pretty much the exact same thing every other smartwatch does, but is are doing so in a market that is dying a fairly nasty death. With big names like Pebble going under, and Fitbit’s stock having been on a steady decline, the persistence in putting out new products is a bold move.

In October 2016, the BBC wrote about a new report by market analysts IDC that showed amartwatch shipments declined by 51.6% year-on-year. The Apple Watch held its place as the market leader, but shipped only a quarter of the units it had sold in the same period (July-September) of 2015. And of the five leading brands, only Garmin showed growth with that growth still being underpinned by low figures.

“It has become evident that, at present, smartwatches are not for everyone,” said Jitesh Ubrani from IDC. “Having a clear purpose and use case is paramount, hence many vendors are focusing on fitness due to its simplicity.”

Images courtesy of Acer

It was pointed out by experts that the period examined was before new versions were released, but there is still a clear lack in significant consumer appetite. The market has largely survived off the fitness aspects, with other products largely falling by the wayside as the novelty wears off. And Acer itself hasn’t exactly been the premium forerunner.

The Leap Ware watch certainly seems a perfectly fine entry into the marketplace. It’s got “diverse fitness tracking features thanks to an array of sensors with advanced algorithms” and supposedly has a battery life of three to five days so you don’t miss out on logging those all-important stats. My watch only tells the time and date. It also has a battery life of ten years.

There is a reasonable chance that initial sales for the Leap Ware may be strong, being all shiny and new as it is. There’s also a very good chance they will quickly plummet as Acer discovers what consumers are desperately trying to tell them: people don’t want smartwatches anymore.

For more information and discussion of the collapse of wearable technology, check out the latest issue of Factor magazine.

Premature lambs kept alive in artificial wombs

Extremely premature lambs have been kept alive in a artificial womb. The fluid-filled plastic bag reproduces the environment of the womb and replaces the function of the placenta. The scientists responsible believe the device could be used for premature babies within the next three years.

Source: New Scientist

British engineer is using recycled plastic to build stronger roads

British engineer Toby McCartney has devised an innovative process that replaces much of the crude oil-based asphalt in pavement with pellets of plastic, made from recyclable bottles. The result is a street that’s 60% stronger than traditional roads, ten times longer-lasting as well as the obvious environmental benefits.

Source: Curbed

Elon Musk’s giant tunnel boring machine arrives at SpaceX

In February, Musk was looking at purchasing a used Herrenknecht boring machine: about 26 feet in diameter, about 400 feet long, and weighing about 1,200 tons. It’s not clear if this is the same machine, but one just arrived at SpaceX’s headquarters and can now be found in the parking lot.

Source: Electrek

Surgeon claims brain transplants are just three years away

A pioneering Italian surgeon has claimed people who have had their brains cryogenically frozen could be 'woken up' within three years. The claim is being made by professor Sergio Canavero who also claims he can carry out the first human head transplant within 10 months before he begins trials on brain transplants.

Source: The Telegraph

Facebook 'observed propaganda efforts' by governments

Facebook has revealed in a new report that it observed attempts to spread propaganda on its site, apparently orchestrated by governments or organised parties. The firm has seen "false news, disinformation, or networks of fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion", it said.

Source: BBC

Ex-head of Google China predicts AI will take half of all jobs in a decade

The ex-head of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, has said that AI will be bigger than all previous tech innovations put together. "These are things that are superhuman, and we think this will be in every industry, will probably replace 50% of human jobs, create a huge amount of wealth for mankind and wipe out poverty," said Lee.

Source: CNBC