Engineers have designed a means of using solar energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen using an artificial “leaf.” Creative Commons

Scientists are constantly in pursuit of newer and more efficient energy sources. Hydrogen fuel has long been an area of interest, but producing pure hydrogen, which does not occur naturally in the environment and takes a great amount of energy to manufacture, has hindered plans to put it to good use.

Now, researchers may be one step closer to achieving cheaper and cleaner hydrogen production. A group of U.S. engineers has designed an artificial means of using solar energy to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen using an artificial “leaf.”

The team from Arizona State University and the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago have drew inspiration from nature, looking to the way leaves harness the power of sunlight to produce hydrogen and oxygen through photosynthesis. Their study, published in the journal Nature Chemistry, details the progress they’ve made on an electron relay that mimics photosynthesis.

"Initially, our artificial leaf did not work very well, and our diagnostic studies on why indicated that a step where a fast chemical reaction had to interact with a slow chemical reaction was not efficient," ASU chemistry professor Thomas Moore said in a statement. "The fast one is the step where light energy is converted to chemical energy, and the slow one is the step where the chemical energy is used to convert water into its elements hydrogen and oxygen."

After ironing out a few of the kinks, the team was able to make their process more like the natural one.

“We looked in detail and found that nature had used an intermediate step,” Moore said. “This intermediate step involved a relay for electrons in which one half of the relay interacted with the fast step in an optimal way to satisfy it, and the other half of the relay then had time to do the slow step of water oxidation in an efficient way.”

Scientists say hydrogen can be used to fuel spacecraft, combustion engines and even commercial aircraft.

“[Hydrogen] is an environmentally friendly fuel that has the potential to reduce our dependence on imported oil,” the U.S. Department of Energy notes. It can be produced domestically, produces no air pollutants or greenhouse gases and is a cleaner alternative to petroleum.

In addition to developing a better means of hydrogen production, advancing hydrogen fuel technology will involve investing in more hydrogen fueling stations, reducing the cost of hydrogen vehicles and improving onboard fuel storage.