Flower power: The surprising way plants are inspiring new energy sources

Flowers can do it. Why not us?

Caltech scientists are taking inspiration from plants to find the next big fuel source.

Remember those middle school science lessons on photosynthesis? Plants absorb the sunlight into their leaves and eventually convert it into the energy they need to grow. Well, researchers at the California Institute of Technology have used that principle to develop an electrically conductive film that could harness the sunlight’s power to split water into hydrogen fuel.

“We have developed a new type of protective coating that enables a key process in the solar-driven production of fuels to be performed with record efficiency, stability, and effectiveness, and in a system that is intrinsically safe and does not produce explosive mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen,” Nate Lewis, a co-author of the study, said in a Caltech news release.

Lewis and his team are developing an “artificial leaf” to act as a solar-fuel generator that replicates the process of photosynthesis.

Scientists have been working on building electrodes out of several common materials, but they tend to rust when it rains, so Lewis and his team wanted to create a protective coating.

The discovery of the electrically conductive film announced this month is a major success in the process, but scientists still have a lot of work to do to develop a commercial product that would convert sunlight into fuel, Lewis said.

“Our team is also working on a photocathode,” Lewis said. “What we have to do is combine both of these elements together and show that the entire system works. That will not be easy, but we now have one of the missing key pieces that has eluded the field for the past half-century.”

For now, we’ll enjoy the flowers in bloom and see where inspiration strikes next.

Author placeholder image About the author:
Lilee Williams is a freelance journalist and scientific study junkie based in Georgia. Email her at
View More Articles

Stories You Might Like