Not long ago, one “Silk Leaf” prototype had been crowd surfing its way through a blithesome wave of press. You’d say what’s so special about the leaf? Well, for humans in order to survive in outer space, it is imperative that there exists a solution to one obscure problem – a steady supply of oxygen to hang on to. In other words, develop a photosynthetic function similar to what plants have aced in last 450 million years. The creator of the so-called Silk Leaf claims it to be the “first man-made biological leaf”. Finally, an invention that could one day turn interstellar explorations into an achievable feat!

Julian Melchiorri, a graduate student at the Royal College of Art has crafted a synthetic biological leaf made out of silk that emulates the basic function of a leaf –produce oxygen when exposed to light and water.

The Silk Leaf was developed as a part of Melchiorri’s Innovation Design Engineering course at the RCA in collaboration with a silk lab at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The sleek and futuristic leaf consists of chloroplasts extracted from real plant cells, embedded in a material made out of silk protein that sustains them for extended periods.

Hence, the Silk Leaf when exposed to light, water and carbon-dioxide produces oxygen via photosynthesis, a biological marvel that is better off for surviving in outer space. However, since the Silk Leaves have to rely on plants (for the cellular function of chloroplast), there is no way that they could replace them entirely.

Melchiorri calls it light, low energy-consuming, and completely biological. He suggests that the leaf can be utilized for various outdoor applications such as ventilation systems where it absorbs air from outside and oxygenates air inside. It will also help with promoting clean oxygen awareness by applying them on the exterior of buildings, especially in busy metropolitan areas, where, according to the US Forest Service is a dire need for more oxygen producing trees.

The RCA graduate explains that while the NASA has been researching on diverse ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space exploration, the new synthetic biological leaf could help humans explore outer space further than we can for now.

In a conclusive experiment conducted by the International Space Station between October 2009 and October 2010, numerous thale cress plants were successfully grown in microgravity environment. It should be noted that for plants to survive in altered environment, it means adjusting their metabolic activities such that a host of genes are activated that helps to make the process easier.

NASA plans to land the first thale cress plants on the Moon in 2015 to observe how they sustain in lunar gravity. ISS’s VEGGIE project, a fresh food production experiment restricts plant growth into minuscule root bundles intended to hold water and nutrients. Similarly, large root packets will need to be developed for gigantic trees.

Melchiorri’s innovation still leaves out a bunch of question. For example, what happens to the glucose byproducts at the end of a photosynthetic conversion? What is the time period of chloroplasts to sustain in the silk proteins?

Melchiorri is currently refining the Silk Leaf so that a more refined version of his innovation can withstand the most critical of situations. The technology offers new alternatives that will certainly revolutionize a multitude of industries, helping the world be a little more greener.