At zero gravity it is impossible to grow any type of plant and this creates big problems as regards oxygen reserves in space travel. Thanks to a biomimicry approach, an engineering student solved this problem by designing the first artificial biological leaves.
Melchiorri’s Silk Leaf project, which he developed as part of the Royal College of Art’s Innovation Design Engineering course in collaboration with Tufts University silk lab, consists of chloroplasts suspended in a matrix made out of silk protein.
“The material is extracted directly from the fibers of silk,” Melchiorri explains. It 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.”
For their operation, only light and water are needed.
Having the necessity to provide water to the chloroplasts to enable photosynthesis, another embedded technology to deliver water to the chloroplasts has been introduced, inspired by how natural leaves work.
The water can also remove chemical residues and sugars through osmosis, introducing the idea to collect it for energy generation.
The leaf could be used in space exploration as an oxygen generator. Its advantage over regular plants would be that it doesn’t require soil or special nutrients and isn’t confined to any problems that plant growth might face in zero gravity. Here on Earth, the leaf could be used for both indoor and outdoor environments, literally providing a breath of fresh air.
“Plants don’t grow in zero gravity,” explains Melchiorri. “NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space. This material could allow us to explore space much further than we can now.”
“Silk Leaf is the first man-made biological leaf. It’s very light, low energy-consuming, it’s completely biological.”
Article by Giulio Vescovi