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We all know that sunlight is necessary for growing crops because plants perform photosynthesis, using water and carbon dioxide as materials and the energy from sunlight to convert it into the growing power of plants and producing the food we eat. However, although we often admire the magic of nature, after scientists analyzed the efficiency of photosynthesis, they found that this process is actually inefficient, with only about 1% of sunlight energy entering the plants.

Scientists have therefore always wanted to invent new methods to replace photosynthesis.

Scientists at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) and the University of Delaware (UDel) have discovered that plants can use carbon dioxide, water, and acetate as nutrients to grow, which completely bypasses the need for biological photosynthesis, a reaction that can take place in the dark.

As for acetate, it can be produced using artificial photosynthesis.

A paper published in Nature Food states that scientists used an electrocatalytic process to convert carbon dioxide and water into acetate, a salt that contains the acetate ion CH3COO; simply known as acetate, it is the main component of vinegar.

Acetate is also necessary for plants, including crops, which can consume acetate to grow in the dark.

Since electricity is required to make acetate, and electricity can be provided by solar panels, solar power therefore offers the materials needed for plants; a process called “artificial photosynthesis.” This organic-inorganic hybrid system is 18 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis.

“We designed an electrolyzer that can efficiently produce acetate, one of which is a raw material from air – carbon dioxide,” said team leader Robert Jinkerson, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside.

Acetate was dissolved in water as a nutrient solution for plants. It was found that cowpeas, tomatoes, tobacco, rice, rapeseed plant, and green peas could make full use of the carbon in acetate and grow stably in a dark environment. At the same time, acetate is also indispensable to non-plant green algae and fungi.

The benefit of this discovery is “more resilient agriculture,” which, when harnessed properly, could lead to crops appearing in cities unsuitable for agriculture, and even in future space environments.

Therefore, the University of California, Riverside took this method of food production into the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge, winning the first stage. The Deep Space Food Challenge program is a solicitation for game-changing food technologies that can be used on long-duration space missions to provide safe, nutritious, and tasty food in space.

References:
[1] https://www.orientaldaily.com.my/news/international/2022/06/28/495527
[2] https://www.deepspacefoodchallenge.org/

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