NASA award-winning experiment could be the future of artificial photosynthesis

(ORDO NEWS) — The process of turning water, carbon dioxide and sunlight into oxygen and energy helps plants grow naturally – and it’s a process that scientists want to use and adapt to produce food, fuel and more.

In the new study, scientists describe an experimental artificial photosynthesis technique that uses a two-step electrocatalytic process to convert carbon dioxide, water and electricity generated by solar panels into acetate (the main component of vinegar). This acetate can then be used by plants for growth.

In fact, the system the researchers have developed is designed not only to mimic the photosynthesis that occurs in nature, but also to improve it – in plants, only about 1 percent of sunlight energy is converted into biomass, while here the efficiency can be increased by about four times.

NASA award winning experiment could be the future of artificial photosynthesis 2

“Through our approach, we sought to find a new way of producing food that could overcome the limitations normally imposed by biological photosynthesis,” says chemical engineer and environmentalist Robert Ginkerson of the University of California, Riverside.

The electrical power conversion device or electrolyser developed by the researchers had to be specifically optimized to act as a growth promoter for food-producing organisms, which meant, in part, increasing the amount of acetate and decreasing the amount of salt produced.

The team’s further experiments showed that the acetate-rich yield of the electrolyzer could support a variety of organisms, including green algae, yeast, and the mycelium that produces fungi. In comparison, algae production with this method is about four times more energy efficient than natural photosynthesis.

Scientists have shown that peas, tomatoes, tobacco, rice, canola and green peas can use the carbon in acetate and grow without sunlight. This process can be used both in addition to conventional photosynthesis and instead of it.

“We’ve found that a wide range of crops can take the acetate we provide and incorporate it into the basic molecular building blocks the body needs to grow and thrive,” says Markus Harland-Dunaway, a botanist and plant scientist at the University of California, Riverside.

“With the breeding and engineering we are currently working on, we will be able to grow crops with acetate as an additional source of energy to increase yields.”

The process described here is so impressive that it was one of the winners of NASA‘s Deep Space Food Challenge, a showcase of new technologies that could one day help grow food in space: imagine growing crops in underground bunkers on Mars, for example.

Artificial photosynthesis could drastically change food production, and not just in space. The climate crisis means that extreme temperatures, drought, floods and other threats to standard farming practices are becoming more common.

While such processes are no excuse for not fighting climate change, they could help make food production more sustainable and mean that crops can be grown in more places – perhaps in urban areas.

“Using artificial photosynthesis to produce food could be a paradigm shift in how we feed people,” Jinkerson says. “Due to the increased efficiency of food production, less land is needed, which reduces the environmental impact of agriculture.”

“And for agriculture in non-traditional environments, such as in space, energy efficiency improvements could help feed more crew members at a lower cost.”

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