Bionic Leaves: Future Source of Endless Fertilizer?

*Article Notes: This monthly column takes some crazy sounding ideas and applies them to the field of Ag Tech. The purpose of this is purely entertainment, but hey, if we can spread ideas or ignite imaginations, how awesome is that?* 

An illustration of the bionic leaf prototype from Wikimedia commons

Nitrogen fixation by legumes is nothing new to the agriculture community. Certain crops, like alfalfa or soybeans, harbor bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes into the soil for later use.

Two Harvard professors and researchers, Daniel Nocera and Pamela Silver, created a bionic leaf that split water molecules and used the bacteria Ralstonia to create isopropanol.

With some tweaks to the machine and the use of a different bacteria called Xanthobacter, the bionic leaves the researchers created allowed the bacteria to create a bioplastic. The bioplastic was able to be stored within the bacteria. The bacteria then used the bioplastic as fuel to keep itself alive.

The significance of this, if I understand the technology right, is that the bacteria does not need a legume to continue to survive. This means that when you grow crops that do not aid in nitrogen fixation of the soil, this machine can still create self-powered bacterium that will continue to thrive.

That’s right, it is not outside the realm of possibility to have bionic leaves 24/7/365 creating fresh fertilizer on your farm. The bionic leaves might not replace everything, but they can certainly help cut down having to purchase expensive fertilizers in the future.

Now for that pesky ROI thing that keeps getting in the way of fun stuff!

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