Feeding the world with a bionic leaf

Postdoctoral fellow Kelsey Sakimoto of the Harvard University Center for the Environment is working with chemist Daniel Nocera and synthetic biologist Pamela Silver to tune Nocera and Silver’s “bionic leaf” to help forge a new era of distributed agriculture, beneficial even to subsistence farmers far from industrial agriculture’s distribution networks and chemical fertilizer supplies.

The bionic leaf is an outgrowth of Nocera’s artificial leaf, which efficiently splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas by pairing silicon — the material that makes up solar panels — with catalyst coatings. The hydrogen gas can be stored on site and used to drive fuel cells, providing a way to store and use power that originates from the sun.

After developing the artificial leaf, Nocera, the Patterson Rockwood Professor of Energy in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, teamed up with Silver, the Elliott T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, to explore new uses for the technology. Merging the artificial leaf with genetically engineered bacteria that eats hydrogen gas, the pair produced the “bionic leaf,” which creates liquid fuels such as isobutanol.

Sakimoto, whose research was funded in part by a grant from the Campus Sustainability Innovation Fund, which supports work to pilot or prove sustainability research on campus, said that the initial use for the project — which is being scaled up by chemical-engineering collaborators in India — would be to provide fertilizer for small farms and remote rural communities without the need for a large, centralized infrastructure.

Read more at the Harvard Gazette (Rose Lincoln)

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