Artificial photosynthesis can produce food without sunshine

Scientists have found a way to bypass the need for biological photosynthesis altogether and create food independent of sunlight by using artificial photosynthesis. The technology uses a two-step electrocatalytic process to convert carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into acetate. Food-producing organisms then consume acetate in the dark to grow. The hybrid organic-inorganic system could increase the conversion efficiency of sunlight into food, up to 18 times more efficient for some foods.

The research, published in Nature Food, uses a two-step electrocatalytic process to convert carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into acetate, the form of the main component of vinegar. Food-producing organisms then consume acetate in the dark to grow. Combined with solar panels to generate the electricity to power the electrocatalysis, this hybrid organic-inorganic system could increase the conversion efficiency of sunlight into food, up to 18 times more efficient for some foods.

"With our approach, we sought to identify a new way of producing food that could break through the limits normally imposed by biological photosynthesis," said corresponding author Robert Jinkerson, a UC Riverside assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering.

In order to integrate all the components of the system together, the output of the electrolyzer was optimized to support the growth of food-producing organisms. Electrolyzers are devices that use electricity to convert raw materials like carbon dioxide into useful molecules and products. The amount of acetate produced was increased while the amount of salt used was decreased, resulting in the highest levels of acetate ever produced in an electrolyzer to date.

Experiments showed that a wide range of food-producing organisms can be grown in the dark directly on the acetate-rich electrolyzer output, including green algae, yeast, and fungal mycelium that produce mushrooms. Producing algae with this technology is approximately fourfold more energy efficient than growing it photosynthetically. Yeast production is about 18-fold more energy efficient than how it is typically cultivated using sugar extracted from corn.

"We were able to grow food-producing organisms without any contributions from biological photosynthesis. Typically, these organisms are cultivated on sugars derived from plants or inputs derived from petroleum -- which is a product of biological photosynthesis that took place millions of years ago. This technology is a more efficient method of turning solar energy into food, as compared to food production that relies on biological photosynthesis," said Elizabeth Hann, a doctoral candidate in the Jinkerson Lab and co-lead author of the study.

Read the complete research at www.sciencedaily.com. 

Elizabeth C. Hann, Sean Overa, Marcus Harland-Dunaway, Andrés F. Narvaez, Dang N. Le, Martha L. Orozco-Cárdenas, Feng Jiao, Robert E. Jinkerson. A hybrid inorganic–biological artificial photosynthesis system for energy-efficient food production. Nature Food, 2022; 3 (6): 461 DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00530-x 


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