A team of researchers affiliated with the University of California developed a way to grow plants without photosynthesis, a technology both useful on Earth, as it boosts crop yields, and in space where natural sunlight is scarce.
“With our approach, we sought to identify a new way of producing food that could break through the limits normally imposed by biological photosynthesis,” says assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering Robert Jinkerson at UC Riverside.
The idea is to create acetate – the main component of vinegar – through an electrocatalytic process using carbon dioxide, water, and electricity. When consumed by food-producing organisms, acetate allows them to grow in total darkness. The team produced solar-generated electricity, discovering that this alternative source of power improves the conversion efficiency of sunlight into food: eighteen times higher for yeast, and four times higher for algae. The approach was then tested on known crops. It turns out that, when cultivated in the dark, canola, rice, black-eyed peas, tomatoes, and green peas used carbon from acetate, making it an extra energy source that could boost crop yields.