Living artificial leaves: Solar panel-covered ‘cyborg’ bacteria to generate the renewable fuels of the future

Scientists have developed so-called ‘cyborg’ bacteria that mimic the natural photosynthesis of leaves to renewably generate food, fuels and plastics using only sunlight.

The bacteria, which are covered in minute semiconductors that serve as tiny solar panels, function in much the same way as natural leaves, but in a far more efficient manner.

“Rather than rely on inefficient chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals,” explained Dr Kelsey K Sakimoto, who undertook the research in Dr Peidong Yang’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley. “These nanocrystals are much more efficient than chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufactured solar panels.”

The research, which is being presented today at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society has the potential to be developed into a valuable alternative to fossil fuels.

“Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels and plastics, all using solar energy,” said Sakimoto. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

The research involved taking a natural bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, which is not conventionally capable of photosynthesis, and feeding it chemicals that it synthesised to augment its capabilities.

As the bacterium naturally produces acetic acid from CO₂, introducing other genetically engineered bacteria can enable it to produce fuels, polymers and even pharmaceuticals. In this case, Sakimoto fed it both cadmium and cysteine, an animo acid that contains sulphur, causing the bacteria to synthesis cadmium sulphide nanoparticles on its surface: the tiny solar panels that allow it to beat leaves in photosynthesising.

“The thrust of research in my lab is to essentially ‘supercharge’ nonphotosynthetic bacteria by providing them energy in the form of electrons from inorganic semiconductors, like cadmium sulfide, that are efficient light absorbers,” explained Dr Peidong Yang. “We are now looking for more benign light absorbers than cadmium sulfide to provide bacteria with energy from light.”

Image courtesy of Kelsey K Sakimoto

While the bacteria has only been developed in a lab setting, with an 80% efficiency, if it can be developed into a commercial product, it has the potential to be a hugely impactful technology in the transition away from fossil fuels.

“Synthetic biology and the ability to expand the product scope of CO₂ reduction will be crucial to poising this technology as a replacement, or one of many replacements, for the petrochemical industry,” said Sakimoto.

Other research has been previously undertaken to produce artificial leaves, which many hope could be used to form future decentralised power plants, however this research offers a significant improvement that could give it a much higher chance of being commercialised.

“Many current systems in artificial photosynthesis require solid electrodes, which is a huge cost,” explained Sakimoto. “Our algal biofuels are much more attractive, as the whole CO₂-to-chemical apparatus is self-contained and only requires a big vat out in the sun.”

Wanted man captured thanks to facial recognition

A Chinese man who was wanted by police for “economic crimes” – which can include anything from tax evasion to the theft of public property – was arrested at a music concert in China after facial recognition technology spotted him inside the venue.

Source: Abacus News

SpaceX president commits to city-to-city rocket travel

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell has reiterated the company’s plans to make city-to-city travel — on Earth — using a rocket that’s designed for outer space a reality. Shotwell says the tech will be operational “within a decade, for sure.”

Source: Recode

Businessman wins battle with Google over 'right to be forgotten'

A businessman fighting for the "right to be forgotten" has won a UK High Court action against Google.. The businessman served six months’ in prison for “conspiracy to carry out surveillance”, and the judge agreed to an “appropriate delisting order".

Source: Press Gazette

UK launched cyber attack on Islamic State

The UK has conducted a "major offensive cyber campaign" against the Islamic State group, the director of the intelligence agency GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming, has revealed. The operation hindered the group's ability to co-ordinate attacks and suppressed its propaganda.

Source: BBC

Goldman Sachs consider whether curing patients is bad for business

Goldman Sachs analysts have attempted to tackle the question of whether pioneering "gene therapy" treatment will be bad for business in the long run. "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" analysts ask in a report entitled "The Genome Revolution."

Source: CNBC

Four-armed robot performing surgery in the UK

A £1.5m "robotic" surgeon, controlled using a computer console, is being used to shorten the time patients spend recovering after operations. The da Vinci Xi machine is the only one in the country being used for upper gastrointestinal surgery.

Source: BBC

Virgin Galactic rocket planes go past the speed of sound

Virgin Galactic completed its first powered flight in nearly four years when Richard Branson's space company launched its Unity spacecraft, which reached supersonic speeds before safely landing. “We’ve been working towards this moment for a long time,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in an email to Quartz.

Source: Quartz

Google employees protest being in "the business of war"

Thousands of Google employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a letter protesting the company’s involvement in a Pentagon program that uses AI to interpret video imagery and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes. The letter, which is circulating inside Google, has garnered more than 3,100 signatures

Source: New York Times

Computer system transcribes words users “speak silently”

MIT researchers have developed a computer interface that transcribes words that the user verbalises internally but does not actually speak aloud. The wearable device picks up neuromuscular signals in the jaw and face that are triggered by internal verbalisations — saying words “in your head” — but are undetectable to the human eye.

Source: MIT News

Drones could be used to penalise bad farming

A report by a coalition of environmental campaigners is arguing squadrons of drones should be deployed to locate and penalise farmers who let soil run off their fields. Their report says drones can help to spot bad farming, which is said to cost more than £1.2bn a year by clogging rivers and contributing to floods.

Source: BBC

Californian company unveil space hotel

Orion Span, a California company, has unveiled its Aurora Station, a commercial space station that would house a luxury hotel. The idea is to put the craft in low-earth orbit, about 200 miles up, with a stay at the hotel likely to cost $9.5 million for a 12-day trip, but you can reserve a spot now with an $80,000 deposit.

UK mobile operators pay close to £1.4bn for 5G

An auction of frequencies for the next generation of mobile phone networks has raised £1.36bn, says regulator Ofcom. Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three all won the bandwidth needed for the future 5G mobile internet services, which are not expected to be launched until 2020.

Source: BBC