According to a TU Delft press release, a group of international researchers led by the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands used 3D printing to create a living material made of algae that could lead to sustainable energy production on Mars as well as a number of other applications.
The researchers printed microalgae into a living, resilient material capable of photosynthesis using a novel bioprinting technique. Their findings appear in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
“We created a material that can produce energy simply by placing it into the light,” explained Kui Yu, a Ph.D. student involved in the research, in a press release. “The biodegradable nature of the material itself and the recyclable nature of microalgal cells make it a sustainable living material.”
Printing a unique material with the photosynthetic capability of the microalgae and the tough resilience of the bacterial cellulose using non-living bacterial cellulose and living microalgae. According to the researchers, the material is also environmentally friendly, biodegradable, and scalable for mass production.
“The printing of living cells is an attractive technology for the fabrication of engineered living materials.” Associate professor Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam from the Faculty of Applied Sciences. “Our photosynthetic living material has the unique advantage of being sufficiently mechanically robust for applications in real-life settings.”
One of the applications promoted by the TU Delft team is as a sustainable source of energy on space colonies, such as the future Mars colony.
According to the researchers, the material could be used to create artificial leaves that produce sustainable energy and oxygen in environments where plants do not grow well, such as space.
The leaves would store energy as sugars in chemical form, which could then be converted into fuels. During photosynthesis, oxygen could also be collected.
Their findings add to a growing body of scientific literature on solutions for growing plants in space rather than sending supplies from Earth, which would be prohibitively expensive — a pound (453 grams) of materials into low-Earth orbit costs about $10,000.
In 2017, for example, Germany’s space agency (DLR) experimented with growing tomatoes in recycled astronaut urine aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Espaola peppers were also chosen as the first fruit to grow in space due to their resilience, which the TU Delft team says will be incorporated into their artificial leaves.
What about transporting the material to Mars or any other future space colony? According to the TU Delft team, the microalgae in the artificial leaves regenerate, which means that a small batch can theoretically grow into a much larger quantity out in space.