Humans have not been able to inhabit other planets until now, simply because there has not been a mean to allow plants to grow and generate oxygen in a gravity free environment. A student from the Royal College of Art, however, claims to have created the thing that would fill this gap- an artificial leaf that turns water and light into oxygen.
Julian Melchiorri, the great mind behind the discovery, set himself the aim to create an artificial alternative to the plants that are found on Earth. As part of the Silk Leaf Project, supported by the Royal College of Art and Tufts University silk lab, the student managed to create the ultimate mean for oxygen generation in any anaerobic and gravity-free environment.
He developed a new artificial plant leaf, which resembles the ones we are used to seeing, but it has an extra ingredient- a material, or a matrix, made of silk protein, directly extracted from silk fibres. This material allows the chloroplasts that are extracted from real plants, to produce oxygen from small quantity of water and light, while it protects them from the harsh surrounding.
It is still questionable whether this mean of generating oxygen from water and light is more efficient than breaking down the water molecule via electrolysis, especially when we can also make use of the hydrogen here. It is also not entirely clear whether the leaf can grow, or how it behaves in CO2-free environments.
But on the big scale of things, according to Melchiorri (see a short interview/ demo video here), this is the first time ever for somebody to create a man-made biological leaf. And if it is not put into use, let’s say, on Mars, the student has already found numerous applications for his invention here on Earth, such as using them as natural filters in ventilation systems, or to produce more oxygen in confined spaces.
Image (c) Royal College of Art