Image1: Silk Leaf, Julian Melchiorri
My career-long fascination with natural phenomena and biotechnologies inform my design and engineering practice through the implementation of biochemical reactions, bio-inspired structural optimisation and the mimicking of biological mechanisms and technologies to efficiently solve problems and increase the quality of our lives.
If we look at every natural complex habitat, from rainforests to coral reefs, we can see how these places are constantly evolving, changing and adapting to environmental changes, dynamically reacting to them. Paradoxically, our cities tend to remain static and resistant to change.
I believe in a new renaissance where biomaterials, living objects and architectures will shape our future for good by dynamically reacting and harmoniously adapting to the environment. For this to happen, we need to bring biotechnologies from industrial applications to the human scale, and to rethink interactions and aesthetics in response to biologically driven functions and chemical conversions.
From the early stages of my career, I was able to explore and experiment with light, a natural phenomenon which is a fundamental part of all life on earth. Indeed, light enables all life on earth mostly through photosynthesis, the chemical reaction which involves microorganisms and plant cells to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars only using water and light.
3.5 billion years ago this planet was a hostile and desolate place. The atmosphere was toxic and contained no oxygen. Life on earth was restricted to a variety of primitive single cell aquatic organisms. Then a new type of organism emerged with an amazing new capability; it could harvest energy from sunlight and use it to fuel internal activities. This phenomenon is known as photosynthesis and is one of the most important chemical process on earth, almost all life is ultimately reliant upon it.
Over the last century, our constantly growing population is burning fossil fuels and destroying plant life, basically forcing a change in the atmosphere and climate, reverse-terraforming our planet. Having this constant issue in mind, I experiment with ways of making materials that can efficaciously photosynthesise and I explore how this can revolutionise the world around us.
Silk Leaf is the first outcome of this exploration path. It is the first prototype which introduces the potential impact that photosynthetic devices could have on our everyday life. It is made of a biological material mostly composed by silk protein and chloroplasts. Silk Leaf absorbs CO2 and produces oxygen and organic compounds thanks to the photosynthetic ability of the stabilized chloroplasts inside silk protein. Any visible light and water is needed to enable the reaction.
Having the necessity to provide water to the chloroplasts to enable the photosynthesis, another embedded technology to deliver water to the chloroplasts has been introduced, inspired to how natural leafs work. The water could also remove chemical residues and sugars through osmosis, introducing the idea to collect it for energy generation.
The level of oxygen generation could be optimized depending on many factors, from the material composition to the quantity and efficiency of chloroplasts into silk. Recent scientific publications shows nanobionic interventions on chloroplasts increasing their photosynthetic efficiency by 49%. This and other research on genetic modification could allow a dramatic improvement of their efficiency.
Due to: 1) the many benefits of Oxygen and CO2 absorption 2) the low energy consumption 3) its modularity, Artificial Leafs could be used in many applications were the level of CO2 are high or Oxygen is needed : inside ventilation systems, architectural facades, free form surface for interiors, together with the lighting, space exploration.
Julian Melchiorri is a design engineer, biotechnologist and entrepreneur based in London. Internationally known for his visionary “artificial leaf” projects, Melchiorri proposes radical environmental solutions for urban and industrial settings through an innovative exploitation of biological microorganisms and materials to convert waste and pollution into valuable resources.
Julian graduated with an Master of Arts from the Royal College of Art and a Master of Science from Imperial College London called “Innovation Design Engineering”. Julian is the first Engineer in Residence at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a TEDx speaker and finalist at INDEX Design Award 2015. He has taken part in major events and conferences, including the World Economic Forum 2016, Venice Biennale 2015, CNN Green Champions, Downtown Design Dubai, Salone del Mobile, London Design week and ARS Electronica in Linz, Moscow and Berlin.
Image2: Silk Leaf, Julian Melchiorri