The Sun is the source of energy for all lifeforms on Earth, however, what happens if that permanently glowing bulb begins to dim? Scientists have now come up with a new way to replicate the process of photosynthesis without sunlight.

Photosynthesis is a process that converts sunlight into energy and plant life thrives due to this phenomenon, as they use solar energy to break it down to create oxygen and energy in the form of sugar using water, and carbon dioxide.

Scientists have released the findings of the study which bypass the need for biological photosynthesis altogether and create food independent of sunlight by using artificial photosynthesis. The study has been published in the journal Nature Food and stresses two steps electrocatalytic process to convert carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into acetate, the form of the main component of vinegar.

The conversion in a lab-based model is said to be 18-fold more viable than the conventional process.

The acetate thus created is consumed by food-producing organisms in the dark to grow. “With our approach, we sought to identify a new way of producing food that could break through the limits normally imposed by biological photosynthesis,” a corresponding author, Robert Jinkerson said in a statement.

Led by scientists from UC Riverside and the University of Delaware, the team used electrolyzers are devices that use electricity to convert raw materials like carbon dioxide into useful molecules and products. The amount of acetate produced was increased while the amount of salt used was decreased, resulting in the highest levels of acetate ever produced in an electrolyzer to date.

The study reveals that a wide range of food-producing organisms can be grown in the dark directly on the acetate-rich electrolyzer output, including green algae, yeast, and fungal mycelium that produce mushrooms. Yeast production is about 18-fold more energy-efficient than how it is typically cultivated using sugar extracted from corn.

“We were able to grow food-producing organisms without any contributions from biological photosynthesis. Typically, these organisms are cultivated on sugars derived from plants or inputs derived from petroleum—which is a product of biological photosynthesis that took place millions of years ago. This technology is a more efficient method of turning solar energy into food, as compared to food production that relies on biological photosynthesis,” said Elizabeth Hann, a doctoral candidate in the Jinkerson Lab and co-lead author of the study.

The team has also submitted its design to Nasa’s Deep Space Food Challenge where it bagged the phase 1 prize. “Imagine someday giant vessels growing tomato plants in the dark and on Mars—how much easier would that be for future Martians?” said co-author Martha Orozco-Cárdenas.


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