Artificial photosynthesis technology developed to produce food without the use of sunlight

(ORDO NEWS) — From a human point of view, the process of photosynthesis is inefficient: most crops are able to convert solar energy into biomass with an efficiency of no more than a percent.

American researchers have found a way to do without biological photosynthesis at all and have developed a system for food production that does not use (at least directly) sunlight. In the future, the technology will allow food to be produced during long-term space missions, such as to the Moon or Mars.

Land plant photosynthesis has evolved over millions of years, converting water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight energy into plant biomass that humans and animals consume for food.

As the world’s population grows, so does the demand for food, the production of which is ultimately limited by the efficiency of energy conversion in the process of photosynthesis.

Since this value does not exceed 1% in most crops, large areas of land are required for their cultivation in order to capture enough solar energy and produce the required amount of biomass.

The efforts of scientists in the field of breeding and genetic engineering, aimed at increasing the efficiency of plant photosynthesis, provide only minor benefits for a limited number of crops.

Researchers from the University of California and Delaware (USA) decided to take a different path and developed a hybrid electrochemical-biological system for food production based on the process of artificial photosynthesis.

The system uses a two-stage electrochemical process that converts carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and acetate (which is why it is called artificial photosynthesis). Acetate can serve as a source of carbon and energy for various kinds of algae, yeast, fungi and higher plants.

Moreover, the design of the electrolyzer – a device that converts carbon dioxide into acetate using electricity – was optimized by the authors of the work so that it made it possible to obtain the highest yield of the product today.

Artificial photosynthesis technology developed to produce food without the use of sunlight 1
General scheme of an electrochemical-biological system for the production of food from CO 2 based on artificial photosynthesis

Combining the developed carbon fixation system with solar panels to generate electricity offers an alternative, more energy efficient approach to food production.

Thus, the production efficiency of the biomass of microorganisms (green algae) during cultivation in the dark on acetate-rich water passed through the electrolyzer was four times higher compared to conventional cultivation with access to sunlight.

At the same time, yeast production was 18 times more energy efficient than conventional cultivation using corn-derived sugar.

“We have been able to grow food-producing organisms without any involvement of biological photosynthesis. Usually these organisms are grown on sugar obtained from plants or on raw materials obtained from oil, which is also a product of biological photosynthesis that took place millions of years ago.

Our technology is a more efficient way to turn solar energy into food,” said study co-author Elizabeth Hann , PhD student in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Riverside.

Artificial photosynthesis technology developed to produce food without the use of sunlight 2
Charts using solar energy for plant and algal food production compare the efficiency of artificial and biological photosynthesis. Losses in the conversion of sunlight energy into food are shown by arrows indicating the percentage of total energy lost at each step

In addition, scientists have found that a number of crops (eg lettuce, rice, tomatoes, peppers, tobacco, green peas) can also use the plant’s acetate as an additional source of energy to increase yields.

Thus, freeing agriculture from complete dependence on sunlight, artificial photosynthesis will allow the cultivation of microorganisms and plants in increasingly difficult conditions, including climate change, lack of arable land, and even in long-term space missions, including to Mars.

The proposed method of food production was recognized as the winner of the first phase of the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge, an international competition to create new and revolutionary food technologies that require minimal costs and provide the safest, most nutritious and delicious foods for long-term space missions.

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