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Harvard’s Bionic Leaf Could End World Hunger

Apr 05, 2017 05:04 AM EDT
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An artificial leaf could boost agricultural yields significantly by producing fertilizer from air, water, sunlight and bacteria.
(Photo : Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

To curb the global food crisis, the world is turning over a new leaf -- literally. Harvard researchers have invented a bionic leaf that's capable of transforming air, water, sunlight and bacteria into fertilizer that could boost agriculture all over the world.

According to a report from the American Chemical Society, Daniel Nocera, Ph.D., from Harvard University, is using his existing work of the bionic leaf to create more fertilizer in hopes of increasing crop yields to feed the growing population.

When this artificial leaf is exposed to sunlight, it acts like a natural leaf does, splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. By combining the leaf with the bacteria Ralstonia eutropha, it's able to consume hydrogen and pull carbon dioxide out of the air, effectively producing liquid fuel.

With a different type of bacteria, Nocera's group was able to create fertilizer. The system involves the Xanthobacter bacteria fixing the hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce a bioplastic that's stored inside the bacteria.

"I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic," Nocera explained in the press release. "Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilizing crops."

The team tested their invention on radishes, discovering that the vegetables that got the fertilizer from the bionic leaf weighed 150 percent more than the control crops.

Scientists are hoping this could help curb the intensifying food crisis that's sweeping all over the world. The Food Security Information Network (FSIN) revealed that conditions are expected to worsen significantly in 2017, especially in poorer and conflict-ridden countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

The number of people experiencing food insecurity crisis level skyrocketed from 80 million in 2015 to 108 million in 2016.

"When you have a large centralized process and a massive infrastructure, you can easily make and deliver fertilizer," Nocera pointed out. "But if I said that now you've got to do it in a village in India onsite with dirty water -- forget it. Poorer countries in the emerging world don't always have the resources to do this. We should be thinking of a distributed system because that's where it's really needed."

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