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RCA Student Invents Artificial Leaf that Can Produce Oxygen

Arts & Culture

The synthetic material can photosynthesize and survive at zero gravity, creating new opportunities for space exploration

Vashti Hallissey
  • 30 july 2014


The Silk Leaf, by RCA graduate Julian Melchiorri, is the first manmade material that can perform photosynthesis. It has huge implications for science and technology and it could also make long-distance space travel a possibility.

The leaf contains chloroplasts taken from real plant cells. These are suspended in a silk protein material and when the material comes into contact with water and light, it converts it to oxygen, just like a natural leaf.

Melchiorri explains in a video made for Dezeen and MINI Frontiers:

The material is extracted directly from the fibers of silk. This material 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.

The project was made as part of the Innovation Design Engineering course at the Royal College of Art in London, in collaboration with Tufts University silk lab.

At the moment, there isn’t a system that can provide astronauts with enough oxygen to travel far into Space. Melchiorri’s invention could be the answer to this problem, by converting water and artificial light into the oxygen that astronauts need to survive.

Melchiorri says in the video:

Plants don’t grow in zero gravity. 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 material could also transform cities, making buildings capable of generating their own oxygen.

visualisation_of_photosynthetic_filters_for_buildings_by_julian_melchiorri.jpg

In the video, Melchiorri states:

It could [also] be used for outdoor applications. So facades, ventilation systems. You can absorb air from outside, pass it through these biological filters and then bring oxygenated air inside.

The Silk Leaf is an incredible invention which could mean that space is no longer the “final frontier.” One day, we may be able to measure our flights in light years rather than air miles.

Julian Melchiorri

[h/t] Gizmodo, Dezeen

Images: Dezeen

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