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Who Needs Trees? The First Synthetic Leaf

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Jul 31, 2014 05:11 PM EDT
Silk Leaf
The tech world is buzzing about a new breakthrough in nature imitation, synthetic leaves. Julian Melchiorri has crafted an artificial leaf made of silk that can allegedly produce oxygen if exposed to light and water. He claims that a technology such as this could revolutionize a number of industries and help make the world a little greener. (Photo : Silk Leaf - Julian Melchiorri)

The tech world is buzzing about a new breakthrough in nature imitation, synthetic leaves. Julian Melchiorri has crafted an artificial leaf made of silk that can allegedly produce oxygen if exposed to light and water. He claims that a technology such as this could revolutionize a number of industries and help make the world a little greener.

Melchiorri, a graduate student at the Royal College of Art, created his synthetic leaf, called Silk Leaf, in conjunction with a silk lab at Tufts University. The final product was recently featured by Dezeen and Mini Frontiers - a year-long collaboration between two name brands dedicated to "exploring how design and technology are coming together to shape the future."

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"It's very light, low energy-consuming," Mechiorri said in a Frontiers video. "It's completely biological and my idea was to use the efficiency of nature in a man-made environment. 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."

Mechiorri suggests that this simple leaf technology can be applied to the sides of building, promoting the production of clean oxygen even in busy metropolitan areas, where the US Forest Service says we already need more oxygen producing trees.

However, this certainly doesn't mean we can forget all about planting trees. Accoridng to the graduate student, the Silk Leaf features chloroplasts extracted from actual plant cells. These tiny cellular power-plants are then suspended in a material made from silk proteins that preserves them for an extended (but unspecified) amount of time. In this way, the Silk Leaves could never replace real plants entirely, as they rely on the real-deal even to be made.

Still, Mechiorri isn't simply just making leaves with other leaves either. It's more like he's making a new kind of leaf to tackle very specific and challenging situations.

"Plants don't grow [well] in zero gravity," explained Melchiorri. "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."

NASA is currently working on developing ways to grow agriculture on the International Space Station, but the agency's current VEGGIE project limits plant growth to tiny individualized root packets designed to hold water and nutrients.

Some very large packets would need to be developed for trees. Mechiorri's invention offers a new and attractive alternative.

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