Synthetic Plants

When I was in college I had a garden before it was in vogue, now I live in an Urban area and it is very difficult to keep up the green thumb.  While most of robotics are focused on mechanical devices, I would like to suggest that bio-engineering has a very robotic element at its core.  Ultimately, we use the tools around us to program and make objects serve the betterment of humanity.

I think graduate student Julian Melchiorri must feel the same way which led to his creation of the synthetic leaf at the UK’s Royal College of Art. The ‘Silk Leaf Project’ was designed for an RCA course offered in collaboration with Tufts University’s silk lab in Massachusetts. Melchiorri leaf works just like a real plant as it uses photosynthesis to produce oxygen, by absorbing light, water and carbon dioxide.

“The artificial leaves feature chloroplasts extracted from actual plant cells that are suspended in a material made from silk protein. So when given access to light and water they still produce oxygen, but they’re better suited to surviving off our planet,” according to the inventor. 

The protein-based material is extracted directly from the silk fiber. It’s used to stabilize organelles ‒ organic molecules within a cell, including chloroplasts ‒ within the material’s matrix, Melchiorri told

I have the first photosynthetic material that was working and breathing as a leaf does,” he said.

The man-made leaf is lighter than the real thing, but better suited to long-term life in space because scientists don’t know if organic plants would survive and flourish outside our atmosphere the way humans would need them to. And if mankind is to colonize space, those living on another planet would need to produce their own O2 gas. This is where his innovation could have a big impact on robotics.

“So what if we could take those biological oxygen factories into space with us, but without all the land, sun, water, soil, and gravity that forests tend to require?,” Eric Mack of CNet wonders.  He further states that “this is the point where NASA and Elon Musk should probably start paying attention.”

The space agency is the designer’s ideal target, in fact.

“Plants don’t grow in zero gravity,” Melchiorri explained. “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.”

The design brings the natural efficiency of photosynthesis to a man-made material and I think potentially it could also be used in the world of soft robotics. As Melchiorri is an art student at his core, he sees his leaf being used for interior design or for the ventilation system in a large building. The material would serve as a filter for the outside air, bringing oxygenated air into the structure. Below are some of his concept designs:

This all sounds great, but according to space experts the prognosis for a mission to Mars is far off.  As Dr. Wim Vermaas of Arizona State University’s Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis states “…[I]t looks like a nice artistic expression of an artificial leaf, and while it may possibly be true that silk proteins stabilize chloroplast function somehow, proteins in a cell are in a constant state of turnover (some more than others) and eventually (on the scale of hours or perhaps days), the system will inactivate… So, it won’t be surviving long enough to be useful for a space mission, I’m afraid.”

Melchiorri ideas are just a start of a much bigger endeavor, as in order for humans to live in outer space we require a continuous supply of oxygen, just maybe a robotic or artificial biological leaf is just the beginning of  the first flower that will eventually produce fruit. 

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