The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Building an Artificial Leaf

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Quantum mechanics and Foosball? Credit: RickyDavid.

When I began this story, it seemed pretty simple. I'd heard that scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab were working to mimic photosynthesis and create a man-made version of the process that could supply us with renewable energy.

The premise is to create a "closed-loop" energy system. Artificial leaves would use water, sunlight and carbon dioxide as inputs to create fuels like butane. Those fuels would be used for transportation or fuel cells. And by burning those fuels, we would produce carbon dioxide. The cycle goes on from there.

I never thought that quantum mechanics would enter the picture. That's what I discovered at the UC Berkeley lab of Graham Fleming. He says we have a lot to thank photosynthesis for. It produces the oxygen we breathe and is the basis for the entire food chain on the planet.

Fleming's lab is dedicated to understanding how photosynthesis works so well. And one of the things they've found is that plants are somehow tapping into quantum mechanics to improve their efficiency. It's pretty complicated – but with the help of the folks in Fleming's lab, they helped me understand it through, of all things, Foosball. Here's an audio version of it to help you out.

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Listen to the Building an Artificial Leaf radio report online, and listen to our Web Extra: Photosynthesis and Foosball.


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Category: Biology, Energy, Environment, Partners, Radio

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.