Earth faces some troubling conundrums. On one front, increased levels of carbon dioxide and other gasses are fueling drastic climate change. On another, we’re steadily using up all the planet’s arable land, and will soon run out of space to grow food.
Enter the Bionic Leaf, a system that uses solar power and bacteria to literally make food out of carbon dioxide.
The tech behind the Bionic Leaf has been developing for the past few years. But one Seattle scientist wants to give that research a push with a project to build Bionic Leaf kits that can be used in homes and labs around the world to experiment with this new technology.
Mark Minie, an affiliate assistant professor in the University of Washington’s bioengineering department, submitted his idea to the Amazon Catalyst program, a collaboration between UW’s CoMotion and Amazon that funds projects by university students, staff and faculty that aren’t able to apply for traditional funding methods.
Minie’s project is one of ten awardees announced today in the program’s most recent round. He received the maximum grant amount of $100,000 and will collaborate with Seattle community lab SoundBio on the project along with the Biospherics Working Group, a meetup of biologists that Minie helped found.
Minie first started thinking about the project during meetings of the Biospherics group.
“Most of us actually are space enthusiasts as well as biologists, and the idea of terraforming was essential to a lot of our thinking. And it occurred to all of us that the first planet we’re likely to terraform will be Earth,” Minie told GeekWire.
It turns out some of the technology they had been discussing as tools to terraform planets like Venus and Mars was already being used on Earth to create food for livestock, for example.
Minie realized this tech “could be used to do things like actually reduce the ambient carbon dioxide level in Earth’s atmosphere and make it into useful materials and products,” he said.
The goal of the Bionic Leaf project is to take technology that has so far been confined to research labs and global corporations and make it more accessible to a range of people.
Minie will work with several SoundBio organizers on the project, including local scientist Michal Galdzicki, amateur biologist and data scientist Zach Mueller, and UW professor Herbert Sauro. They will also open the project for SoundBio volunteers to work on. The team will first develop their own Bionic Leaf as a proof-of-concept device. They plan to use the food produced as fish feed and store the methane produced as a side effect for possible use as fuel.
Then Minie will develop an open-source kit that can be used by students and science enthusiasts to build their own Bionic Leaf. He likened these kits to the computer building kits that spread like fire in the 1980s, and said he hopes the kits will spark innovation and inspire young learners the way the originals did.
The project will also involve workshops and classes hosted by SoundBio that teach students and amateur scientists about the process.
Minie said the project wouldn’t exist without the support of the Catalyst program.
“What’s unique about this program, from my perspective, is that it recognizes that there are people who don’t fit into the original structure” for funding projects, he said. Normally funding is only open to professors or those on track to become a professor, while other researchers and graduate students are left by the wayside.
“The Amazon Catalyst grant actually enabled someone like me to do a project like this,” Minie said, adding that it gives the university an opportunity to try out ideas that may be innovative but don’t fit into the academic system.
The program, which started in 2015, has awarded 27 grants total, including the ten announced today. The program considers any kind of project for funding, including those in the social sciences and humanities.
Minie is the lead investigator on the Bionic Leaf project, and will work with SoundBio co-founder Michal Galdzicki and UW professor Sauro.