Bionic leaf
Chloroplasts found in a leaf are the key actors in photosynthesis.Juan Pablo Giraldo, Nicole Iverson

A graduate student in innovation design engineering at the UK's Royal College of Art has created a synthetic leaf that mimics the functions of its real counterpart.

"I have the first photosynthetic material that is working and breathing as a leaf does," said Julian Melchiorri.

The synthetic leaf uses photosynthesis to produce oxygen, by absorbing light, water and carbon dioxide. The artificial leaves contain chloroplasts extracted from actual plant cells that are suspended in a culture made from silk protein. When given access to light and water they produce oxygen.

The protein was extracted directly from silk fiber. It's used to stabilise certain organic molecules found inside a cell, including chloroplasts, within the material's matrix.

This one is ideal for oxygen parlours. However, the student believes his leaf is better suited for life outside the planet, in sterile conditions where oxygen is scarce. He sees a big role for his silk leaf if humans set out to explore and colonise space.

The 'Silk Leaf Project' was done for an RCA course offered in collaboration with Tufts University's silk lab in Massachusetts.