“Using artificial photosynthesis approaches to produce food could be a paradigm shift for how we feed humans,” emphasizes one scientist.
Sunshine is essential for plants as they grow and thrive through photosynthesis by converting carbon dioxide, water and energy from the sun into plant biomass. Or is it really essential?
Not necessarily, say scientists in the United States, who have devised a way to grow food in the dark without using sunlight through artificial photosynthesis.
Their method uses an electrocatalytic process that converts carbon dioxide, electricity and water into acetate (a component of vinegar), which is then consumed by food-producing organisms in the dark.
Their hybrid organic-inorganic system, coupled with solar panels to power the electrocatalysis needed for the process, could increase the conversion efficiency of sunlight into food by up to 18 times in some cases, say the scientists at the University of California Riverside and the United States. University of Delaware.
Photosynthesis, they explain, is highly inefficient because only about 1% of the energy found in sunlight ends up in plant material. “With our approach, we sought to find a new way to produce food that could break the limits normally imposed by biological photosynthesis,” said Robert Jinkerson, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside.
“Using a state-of-the-art two-step tandem CO2 electrolysis setup developed in our lab, we were able to achieve a high selectivity to acetate that is not accessible via conventional CO2 electrolysis pathways,” explains Feng Jiao, a scientist at the University of Delaware.
Food-producing organisms that can be grown in the dark on acetate-rich electrolysers include green algae, yeast and fungal mycelium that produce mushrooms.
“Producing algae with this technology is about four times more energy efficient than growing it photosynthetically. Yeast production is about 18 times more energy efficient than the way it is commonly grown with sugar extracted from corn,” the scientists note.
Even common crops such as tomato, tobacco, rice, canola and green pea were able to extract carbon from acetate when grown in the dark.
“We found that a wide variety of crops could absorb the acetate we supplied and build it into the key molecular building blocks an organism needs to grow and thrive,” said Marcus Harland-Dunaway, a doctoral candidate who is co-lead author. was from a investigation into the findings†
“With some breeding and engineering that we are currently working on, we may be able to grow crops with acetate as an additional energy source to increase crop yields,” the researcher added.
Thanks to this breakthrough, food-producing organisms can now be grown without the need for biological photosynthesis.
“Normally, these organisms are grown on sugars derived from plants or inputs derived from petroleum, a product of biological photosynthesis that took place millions of years ago,” explains Elizabeth Hann, a doctoral student who was another co-lead author. “This one [new] technology is a more efficient method of converting solar energy into food, compared to food production that relies on biological photosynthesis.”
Importantly, since the new method of artificial photosynthesis obviates the need for the sun, it “opens the door to countless opportunities to grow food under the increasingly difficult conditions imposed by anthropogenic climate change,” the scientists said.
Land shortages will pose less of a threat to global food security if crops can be grown in less resource-intensive, controlled environments without the need for sunshine. In addition, crops could also be grown in cities and other areas, such as underground areas that were hitherto unsuitable for agriculture.
“Using artificial photosynthesis approaches to produce food could be a paradigm shift for how we feed humans,” Jinkerson points out.
“By increasing the efficiency of food production, less land is needed, reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment. And for farming in non-traditional environments, such as space, the increased energy efficiency could help feed more crew members with less input,” adds the scientist.
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