An art student studying in London believes he may have hit on a synthetic leaf technology that replicates a plant’s ability to generate oxygen, with the potential for innovation not just on Earth, but even in space.
The artificial leaves, created by Royal College of Art Student Julian Melchiorri, use extracted plant chloroplasts — the bits that are responsible for photosynthesis — which are embedded in a silk matrix. Despite Melchiorri’s quoted belief that plants can’t grow in zer0-gravity, because they most certainly can, the synthetic leaves offer a possible alternative that could potentially produce oxygen relatively easily and compactly.
NASA is currently researching ways to generate technology to allow for long distance space travel. At the moment those efforts face several obstacles, not least of which is how to produce an oxygenated environment while in space to sustain a crew over many years. Plants offer the best of both worlds in that they can produce oxygen and be eaten, however Melchiorri’s project might allow for a compact alternative when, for whatever reason, plants can’t be used or when there is need for a backup system.
“The material is extracted directly from the fibres of silk,” Melchiorri is quoted as saying. “This material has an amazing property of stabilizing molecules. I extracted chloroplasts from plant cells and placed them inside this silk protein. As an outcome I have the first photosynthetic material that is living and breathing as a leaf does,” he said, though it’s worth pointing out that his is not the first synthetic leaf technology, though it may be among the first using actual biological material from plants. Melchiorri isn’t just thinking about space exploration, though. He believes the technology could be useful on Earth.
In 2009, Columbia University researcher Klaus Lackner hit the headlines after he designed a plastic kiosk that, he claimed, could capture carbon dioxide thousands of times faster than any one single tree and store it as liquid carbon dioxide, acting as a trap. While impressive, the front-end costs of this carbon capture technology has been a turn-off as it would require significant upfront investment. This is where Melchiorri’s synthetic leaves may have a cheaper support role to play.
Melchiorri envisages covering entire buildings with the synthetic leaf material. ”It could [also] be used for outdoor applications,” he says. “So facades, ventilation systems. You can absorb air from outside, pass it through these biological filters and then bring oxygenated air inside.”
That sounds like a good idea, but there’s one really big problem with this and all of Melchiorri’s plans, and one that the artificial tree kiosk idea doesn’t suffer from. The chloroplasts Melchiorri uses of course aren’t self-sustaining and by necessity have a short life. That means the synthetic leaves would need to be replaced periodically. At the moment that would have to happen every couple of weeks (and that’s best-case scenario). That obviously is unsustainable if we want to start applying the material to buildings and architecture, and definitely unworkable for space flight.
As yet there aren’t any easy answers. However, Melchiorri says that he has created much smaller products, like lampshades, that could help oxygenate homes and businesses while the lights are on. The other claims aside, this perhaps shows how we could most benefit from technology like this. Where in cities it isn’t possible to plant vast swathes of trees, synthetic leaf technology could help us as we struggle for cleaner, safer air, and in particular if the technology could be made more efficient and less wasteful.
Finally, here’s a video about Melchiorri’s project that offers a fascinating insight into his synthetic leaf technology:
Photo credit: Thinkstock.