By Jeff McMahon

The chemist who gave us the artificial leaf has genetically engineered bacteria to absorb hydrogen and carbon dioxide and convert them into alcohol fuel.

When Harvard Professor of Energy Daniel G. Nocera announced he was working with bacteria last year, other scientists cautioned it would be difficult to achieve a productive level of efficiency. At the time, Nocera was aiming for 5 percent efficiency—about 5 times better than plants. This month at the University of Chicago, he announced his bug converts sunlight ten times more efficiently than plants.

“Right now we’re making isopropanol, isobutanol, isopentanol,” he said in a lecture to the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago. “These are all alcohols you can burn directly. And it’s coming from hydrogen from split water, and it’s breathing in CO2. That’s what this bug’s doing.”

Nocera’s artificial leaf, developed while he was at MIT, made a splash five years ago because the wafer of silicon and other elements can be dropped in water, exposed to sunlight, and it will continuously split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen, a clean burning fuel, is typically made from natural gas in a process that emits greenhouse gases…

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