Will the “Bionic Leaf” Drive the Next Agricultural Revolution?

As we continue to consume more and more produce daily, scientists around the world are trying to develop innovative farming tools to improve agricultural output.

A group of Harvard University researchers, led by Daniel Nocera, PH.D, are on a mission to improve produce growth with the “bionic” leaf.

It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but rest assured the “Bionic leaf,” built on the previous Nocera lab team’s invention, the “artificial leaf,” is a real, functioning device.

So How Does it Work?

The “bionic” leaf uses bacteria, water, air and sunlight to create fertilizer alongside crops growing in soil.

“When you have a large centralized process and a massive infrastructure, you can easily make and deliver fertilizer,” said Nocera in a press release. “But if I said that now you’ve got to do it in a village in India onsite with dirty water — forget it. Poorer countries in the emerging world don’t always have the resources to do this. We should be thinking of a distributed system because that’s where it’s really needed.”

Researchers point out that the world’s population is expected to swell to over 2 billion by 2050. As the world gets more crowded, there will be even more mouths to feed. Poorer areas will have more difficulty feeding its local population. While, wealthy areas are rapidly consuming resources and the food supply. Americans make up only 4.5% of the world's population, but consume almost 20% of its energy.

Another issue is that there isn’t enough agricultural space. With that in mind, being able to boost crop yields will be especially important in the years to come.

That’s why researchers invented the “artificial leaf,” which is a device that mimics the functions of a natural leaf. When it is exposed to sunlight, it splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.  

This device was just the beginning and it led the researchers to develop the “bionic leaf,” which takes the “artificial leaf’s” functions and pairs it with bacteria. The device then consumes the hydrogen and sucks out the carbon dioxide out of the air to make liquid fuel.

The researchers have been experimenting with different bacterias to foster different results.

“Now we are demonstrating the generality of it by having another type of bacteria take nitrogen out of the atmosphere to make fertilizer,” said Nocera.

Again, the device has two important functions.

“I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic,” said Nocera. “Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilizing crops.”

The Result= Bigger Crops

To put things simply, the device helps to produce much bigger crops.

As portrayed in the photo below, the fuller radishes on the right were grown in soil with the Bionic Leaf. Vegetables receiving the fertilizer from the device weighed 150% more than the control crops– those grown without it.

"If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing," said Nocera. "It takes sunlight, water and air--and then look at a tree. That's exactly what we did, but we do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel."

And someday this fuel may even be able to be used to power cars in the future.

When Will it be Employed at Farms?

Nocera recently submitted a paper about the latest bionic leaf system and his team’s findings.

Although Nocera sees some potential in the commercial sector, he wants to someday introduce the device to poorer areas that desperately need enhanced soil.

"It's an important discovery--it says we can do better than photosynthesis," said Nocera in a press release. "But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well."

However, Nocera hasn't explicitly said he when thinks the device will be ready to be deployed at farms across the world.  

Nocera presented his team's latest research at an American Chemical Society conference in April where he said his researchers are trying to boost throughput, so that someday farms in more poverty-stricken areas in India or sub-Saharan Africa will be able to enhance crops and feed more of their population.