Sometimes we assume that the natural way is the best way, or it doesn’t even occur to us to look for an alternative. Especially for the most basic things. But some scientists are questioning photosynthesis, the way plants use the sun’s energy for growth. Typical crop plants make use of as little as 1% of the sun’s energy they’re exposed to. Perhaps there could be a more efficient method.

The University of Delaware and University of California Riverside researchers have teamed up to figure out how to produce food through artificial photosynthesis, publishing their findings thus far last month in Nature Food. Robert Jinkerson at UC Riverside mixes engineering and botany. He and his group are experimenting with indoor agriculture, rather than old-school fields and sunlight. Jinkerson compares his approach with developments in medicine.

“Something that’s so important,” he said, as reported by Agri Pulse. “We take it into a lab, we make sure that we can produce as much as we need, we have very strict quality control.” Could this also be an upgrade to our food supply?

Acetate is key

Jinkerson, Jiao and their colleagues use a two-step carbon dioxide electrolyzer system, which produces the chemical compound acetate. Through the magic of electricity, an electrolyzer converts raw materials such as carbon dioxide into useful products and molecules. Acetate is commonly found in lots of stuff most of us have in our cupboards, from mustard to shampoo. It’s used as both an emulsifier to blend ingredients and a preservative to extend shelf life.

But Jinkerson and colleagues are using acetate to cultivate yeast and grow algae in the dark. Their electrolyzing experiments used a copper catalyst to convert 47% of carbon molecules from carbon dioxide into acetate. This concentrated acetate makes a futuristic plant food. The researchers tried it on rice, lettuce, green peas, cowpeas, peppers, canola, tomato, tobacco and mustard family member Arabidopsis.

And what was the result? When they powered the electrolyzer with an external solar cell, they found out that they could grow food with one-fourth the energy it usually takes to grow a crop the old-fashioned way. Algae grew four times faster than usual, and the yeast was a whopping 18 times more energy efficient than cultivating it using a sugar method. Lettuce also thrived.

However, there is a drawback. If there’s too much acetate in plants, the food will become toxic. So scientists still need to tweak their process before declaring independence from photosynthesis.

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