Innovation That Matters

Researchers are growing plants in complete darkness in an acetate medium that replaces biological photosynthesis. | Photo source Marcus Harland-Dunaway/UCR

'Artificial photosynthesis’ could be the future of food

Food & Drink

New research paves the way for food production independent of sunlight

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Spotted: Through photosynthesis, plants convert water, carbon dioxide, and energy from sunlight into sugars that they use to grow biomass. This process has been the basis of the food chain for millions of years, yet it is surprisingly inefficient. In fact, only about one per cent of the energy found in sunlight actually ends up in the plant. Now, scientists at the University of California Riverside have found a way to improve on mother nature by bypassing biological photosynthesis entirely.

The research team used a special type of electrolyser—a device that uses electricity to obtain useful molecules from raw materials—to convert carbon dioxide into a substance called acetate. Plants can directly consume this substance to grow, without the need for photosynthesis. The team used solar panels to generate power for the electrocatalysis.

The artificial system converts sunlight into food far more efficiently than biological photosynthesis. And experiments have found that mushrooms, yeast, and green algae could all be grown in complete darkness using the electrolyser-derived acetate. Producing algae with acetate was four times more energy efficient than producing it through photosynthesis. Yeast does not photosynthesise and is normally cultivated using sugars from corn. Cultivating it with acetate, however, was 18 times more efficient.

The technology could be used to produce food entirely independent of sunlight. This would enable crops to be grown in locations where sunlight is scarce, such as underground or in space. The research is still in its early stages, but the potential applications of the technology are numerous.

Springwise has spotted other innovations featuring photosynthesis including an algae-powered microprocessor, technology that supports growth through CO2 captured from the air, and a wastewater system that uses a process similar to photosynthesis.  

Written By: Katrina Lane



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