3D Printed Artificial Leaves Could Generate Oxygen on Mars

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Researchers at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) have developed a method for bioprinting algae to create living, photosynthetic materials that are tough and resilient. The resulting study, published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, describes the outcome of the research and its implications for the future.

The project began with the 3D printing of dead cellulose excreted from bacteria, which demonstrates such useful qualities as flexibility, strength, toughness, and shape memory. A 3D printer was then used to deposit living algae onto the cellulose substrate. In turn, the material had both the photosynthetic ability of the algae and the strength of the cellulose. Not only was the resulting material biodegradable and its production scalable and low-cost, but the photosynthetic nature of the material means that it could feed on sunlight and potentially regenerate.

The initial bioprinting setup.

The authors noted that the materials could survive for at least three days without nutrients, but nutrients would obviously extent their survival. Printed objects could be readily scaled up to ≥70 cm × 20 cm in size. The cellulose made the printed objects strong enough to stand on their own, but they could also be detached and reattached to different surfaces.

“The printing of living cells is an attractive technology for the fabrication of engineered living materials.” says Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor from the Faculty of Applied Sciences. “Our photosynthetic living material has the unique advantage of being sufficiently mechanically robust for applications in real-life settings.”

Applications for such a unique material include the fabrication of artificial leaves that could convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy. With the ability to convert the sugars produced by the leaves into fuel, it could be possible to generate energy in places where plants don’t grow well, such as in space.

“We created a material that can produce energy simply by placing it into the light,” says Kui Yu, a Ph.D. student involved in the work. “The biodegradable nature of the material itself and the recyclable nature of microalgal cells make it a sustainable living material.”

Another application could be the fabrication of elements that sense and respond the way that plants do. Elvin Karana, from the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, elaborated:

“What if our everyday products were alive: could sense, grow, adapt, and eventually die? This unique collaborative project shows that this question is beyond the realm of speculative design. We hope our article will spark new conversations between design and science communities and inspire new directions for investigations for future photosynthetic living materials.”

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