Scientists have invented an artificial leaf that they hope will spur the next agricultural revolution.
In the late 20th century, fertilizer became more readily available and was mass distributed for the first time. This may have been the main factor in preventing a worldwide food crisis, and now this ‘bionic’ leaf holds the same potential.
“When you have a large centralized process and a massive infrastructure, you can easily make and deliver fertilizer. But if I said that now you’ve got to do it in a village in India onsite with dirty water — forget it. Poorer countries in the emerging world don’t always have the resources to do this. We should be thinking of a distributed system because that’s where it’s really needed,” said Daniel Nocera, Ph.D.
Nocera developed the bionic leaf at Harvard University, where he runs the Nocera Lab. He presented his findings at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
The United Nations purports that the world population will continue to swell, even as it is now at an all-time high. By the year 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people. While this may hold certain possibilities, it also presents some challenges.
For example, the food industry may not be able to supply what is needed for people when there is such high demand. Especially in third world countries where agriculture is lacking, there is something new needed to spur natural growth.
Nocera and his team are working to use the bionic leaf to create a new generation of fertilizer, which they hope will help to spur another “green revolution.” The way the leaf works is that when light hits it, it cuts through a water molecule. The bacteria Ralstonia eutropha is contained in the leaf and mixes with carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce isopropanol. Isopropanol is a colorless gas often recognized as the main ingredient in rubbing alcohol. This fuel is then used to produce ammonia for crops through a multi-step process.
At the presentation in San Francisco, the results of fertilizing crops using this artificial leaf far surpassed expectations. The vegetables grown using this technology produced a much heartier crop than traditionally grown vegetables; the harvest was up to 150 percent heavier.
“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Nocera said. “Before, people were using artificial photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system, and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”
The leaf will soon be re-structured to enhance its efficiency, but Nocera and his team are excited with the results and believe it can be used effectively in commercial applications.