Artificial photosynthesis could help solve the globally rising demand for food by growing crops in the dark. (Image Credit: Marcus Harland-Dunaway/UCR)
Humans and animals can’t survive without photosynthesis because the process churns out one main ingredient: oxygen. In that case, plants rely on sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide for that method. Now, scientists at the University of California, Riverside, are attempting to move away from those necessities with their artificial photosynthesis approach that grows plants in the dark with solar panels. This new process, which is 18 times more efficient, could lead to increased food production as global demand rises. Researchers estimate that food-producing plants can only capture 1% of the sun’s energy.
Professor Robert Jinkerson realized an engineering flaw from photosynthesis’ poor efficiency. Pulling in more energy from every square inch of sunlight means that plants wouldn’t take up as much land space to produce food. Ultimately, the goal here is to change crop cultivation and agriculture practices. Solar panels convert sunlight into energy more effectively than plants, meaning crops can be produced in complete darkness via electricity.
Jinkerson says solar panels could power electrocatalysis, which can replace sunlight and produce a liquid used by yeast, algae, and plants. In this project, the team used an electrolyzer device to convert carbon dioxide, water, and electricity into acetate, a chemical that plants can consume. They discovered that 57% of carbon dioxide’s carbon molecules were successfully converted into acetate. The team then diluted the acetate in water, using the mixture with algae, mushrooms, and yeast to grow, lettuce, rice, peas, tomatoes, pepper, and tobacco. Each plant managed to consume carbon from the acetate.
The study revealed that the algae process was more efficient compared to natural photosynthesis. Also, the yeast production process was 18 times more efficient than the traditional corn sugar process. Artificial photosynthesis produced the best results for lettuce.
“We were able to grow food-producing organisms without any contributions from biological photosynthesis,” said Elizabeth Hann, co-writer of the study. She also mentioned this energy-food-conversion technique is more effective compared to natural photosynthesis. In addition, the team reported that their method only needed 25% of the energy to grow an equal amount of food required by sunlight and photosynthesis.
This technique could also help in the fight against climate change, which makes it tougher to grow crops. “Drought, floods and reduced land availability would be less of a threat to global food security if crops for humans and animals grew in less resource-intensive, controlled environments,” the researchers said.
Artificial photosynthesis could lead to more food production without expanding agricultural land. “Using artificial photosynthesis approaches to produce food could be a paradigm shift for how we feed people. By increasing the efficiency of food production, less land is needed, lessening the impact agriculture has on the environment. And for agriculture in non-traditional environments, like outer space, the increased energy efficiency could help feed more crew members with less inputs,” said Jinkerson.
Next, the team wants to improve the system so it can create a better acetate mixture. Then, they want to try to bioengineer plants, allowing them to grow fully after consuming acetate.
Have a story tip? Message me at: http://twitter.com/Cabe_Atwell