Clean, renewable energy is all around us—the challenge is figuring out how harness it in an efficient way. This is something plants mastered millions of years ago, and researchers at CalTech are trying to follow their lead.

The Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis has just announced the first prototype of an artificial leaf that’s both safe and practical. The technology—made from two electrodes, a photoanode, a photocathode, and a plastic membrane—uses energy from the sun to oxidize water molecules, producing protons, electrons, as well as oxygen gas. The photocathode then reassembles the protons and electrons to create hydrogen gas. Artificial leaves made in the past have been either too unstable or inefficient to be considered for commercial production. This new prototype combines safety, stability, and efficiency, and it could be the first step in creating a commercially feasible version in the future.

The JCAP is one of several groups currently looking into artificial leaf technology. Manmade photosynthesis could be the ultimate solution to our energy woes. Hydrogen is safe and renewable, and having the choice to generate and store hydrogen directly in a fuel cell is a big advantage over the inconsistent electricity we get from solar power.

But achieving such technology presents its own challenges. After mastering efficiency and stability, the next step for the JCAP will be tackling cost. Researcher leader Nate Lewis says he envisions a future where artificial leaves can be “rolled out like a piece of plastic” over large spaces. With the latest prototype functioning at 10 times the efficiency of plants, it looks like the original masters of photosynthesis may have a run for their money.

[h/t: MIT Technology Review]