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.”

Google’s Alphabet is Developing the Neighbourhood of the Future in Toronto

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has announced that Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation unit, will design a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. The neighbourhood, called Quayside, will prioritise, “environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity”.

The initial phase for the development, part of the broader Sidewalk Toronto project, has received a $50m commitment from Sidewalk, but is predicted to cost at least a billion dollars by the time it’s fully completion.

As part of the broader project, Quayside seems to be the first attempt at creating what Sidewalk refers to as a “new kind of mixed-use, complete community”, an attempt the company presumably hopes to eventually expand across the waterfront and ultimately into other cities.

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said on Tuesday.

Early concept images for the neighbourhood include self-driving cars and other infrastructure technologies. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Located in the primarily publicly-owned 800-acre area called Port Lands, Quayside looks to be the test bed for potential future community design. With the planning process for the development starting with a community town hall on the 1st of November, we are still some ways off from knowing just what the neighbourhood will look like, but early illustrations include bikeshares, apartment housing, bus lines and parks.

More importantly, however, is Doctoroff’s previous discussions of what he believes future city design will look like. Technology focused, there’s been mention of sensors that track energy usage, machine learning and using high-speed internet to improve urban environments.

Specifically, at a summit hosted by The Information last year, he mentioned “thinking about [a city] from the internet up”. As would be expected from a company under the same parent as Google, Sidewalk seems to be concentrated on development that prioritises innovation and building communities with an eye to how technology can help found neighbourhoods.

“I like to describe it that we’re in the very early stages of what I call the fourth revolution of urban technology,” Doctoroff previously told Business Insider.

“The first three were the steam engine, which brought through trains and factories that industrialized cities. The second was the electric grid, which made cities 24 hours, made them more vertical, made them easier to get around in with subways and streetcars.

“The third was the automobile, which forced us to really re-think the use of public space in order to protect people from the danger of the automobile. We’re now in the fourth one. We’ve had an urban technology revolution … We’re seeing a real change in the physical nature of our cities.”

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.