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First man-made biological photosynthetic material, which breathes like a leaf, could make space travel easier

Julian Melchiorri with his artificial leaf, which converts light and carbon dioxide into oxygen. (Screen capture from Vimeo)

Julian Melchiorri with his artificial leaf, which converts light and carbon dioxide into oxygen. (Screen capture from Vimeo)

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 5:10 PM - Say hello to Julian Melchiorri and his Silk Leaf - a new man-made material that can produce oxygen using only light and a little bit of water.

When humanity finally ventures beyond low-Earth orbit again, the success of the mission is going to depend on a careful balance - how to pack as few resources as possible, to reduce fuel consumption, while still keeping the crew alive and healthy. Melchiorri's Silk Leaf - apparently the first man-made, completely biological photosynthetic material - might make this easier, by reducing the need to bring along bulky tanks of oxygen.

"My idea was to use the efficiency of nature in a man-made environment," Melchiorri said in a statement, and he even took this new invention into his home. "I created some lighting out of this material, using the light to illuminate the house but at the same time to create oxygen for us."

He explains Silk Leaf in the video below:

Contrary to what Melchiorri says in the video, plants don't necessarily have a hard time growing in zero gravity (as studies have shown). Regardless of that, taking plants on a long space journey to provide the crew with oxygen wouldn't likely be the best option, as they would consume valuable resources (nutrients and water) and take up plenty of space (thus requiring a larger spacecraft that consumes more fuel). With the development of Silk Leaf, though, created from silk fibers and plant chloroplasts, you could line the interior of your spacecraft with it and it would produce oxygen as long as it was supplied with a little water and the ship's lights were still functioning.

As he also points out, this could have applications here on Earth as well, by using this material in our homes, in office buildings and even outside, to produce more oxygen for us to breathe.

Next on the itinerary: A voyage to the edge of space!
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