A team of researchers has developed a hybrid reactor that uses “cyborg” bacteria embedded in nanowires to produce food, fuel and oxygen.
According to the communication from the University of California, Berkeley, this system is very similar to the process of photosynthesis, according to which plants use sunlight to transform carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugars for food.
This new hybrid reactor uses densely packed Sporomusa ovata bacteria amid a “nanowire forest” to convert carbon dioxide into building blocks for organic compounds.
“These silicon nanowires are essentially like an antenna: they capture the photon as if it were a solar panel. Within these nanowires, they generate electrons and feed them with these bacteria. “Then, the bacteria absorb CO2, make chemistry and spit acetate”, explains the project leader, Peidong Yang.
Scientists believe that with this innovation, a spacecraft's payload could be reduced dramatically during Mars colonization missions – and, consequently, costs.
In addition, this system would help to solve the problem of future colonizations of how to produce products such as fuel and medicines in situ. The new reactor would also help to keep the artificial atmosphere rich in oxygen.
The acetate molecules produced by the "cyborgs" bacteria are embedded with quantum dots that also act as solar panels, and would be channeled into the manufacturing environment to produce fuel, plastics and even medicines.
The oxygen produced would be used to provide a breathable atmosphere for future colonists.
Five years ago, the reactor had a solar conversion efficiency of about 0.4%. The current prototype requires an external solar panel for an increase in energy, but it manages to reach a record efficiency of 3.6%. In fact, the Yang system is comparable to the plant that best converts CO2 to sugar: sugar cane, which is 4-5% efficient.
Scientists are now experimenting with genetically modified bacteria that could allow the system to produce even more organic compounds, such as sugars and carbohydrates.