The answer to climate change may have been around us all along: leaves. But we are not talking about common aspen, pine, or maple leaves here.

If you remember from science class, plants use carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water together to yield glucose and oxygen. Inspired by this process, researchers from the University of Waterloo put together an “artificial leaf” that works similarly.

It uses carbon dioxide from the environment and turns it into methanol, a useful alternative fuel to substitute the fossil fuels responsible for generating carbon dioxide in the first place.

"We call it an artificial leaf because it mimics real leaves and the process of photosynthesis," said Yimin Wu, an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, Canada, who led the research. "A leaf produces glucose and oxygen. We produce methanol and oxygen."

Carbon dioxide is heavily targeted in the fight against global warming for its role in the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide traps radiation at ground level which prevents night-time cooling of the earth. A result of this can be seen in the warming of our ocean waters.

What makes the artificial leaf sustainable is a low-cost optimized red powder called cuprous oxide. It serves as a catalyst for a chemical reaction when water is added to it and carbon dioxide is blown while in the presence of a beam of white light directed with a solar simulator.

"This is the chemical reaction that we discovered," said Wu, who has worked on the project since 2015. "Nobody has done this before."

At the end of this reaction, you have oxygen, as well as methanol which was converted from carbon dioxide in the water-powder solution. When heated, the methanol will evaporation from the solution and can thus be collected.

"I'm extremely excited about the potential of this discovery to change the game," said Wu, also a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. "Climate change is an urgent problem and we can help reduce CO2 emissions while also creating an alternative fuel."

A leaf gives off about five milliliters of oxygen per hour. Image by Josch13 from Pixabay