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Chinese scientists have developed an industrial process to produce starch from carbon dioxide. If successfully scaled, it can free up farmland currently used to grow crops like corn and potatoes.

Starch is a substance that plants produce from carbon dioxide and sunlight to store energy through a complex metabolic process. It is widely used in the food industry. It also plays a role in papermaking, biofuel production and other applications.

A group of Chinese researchers have developed an 11-step process that cleanly synthesizes starch in a bioreactor. An article detailing their discovery was published in Science magazine on Friday.

“Starch could in the future be made from carbon dioxide in a process similar to brewing beer”, Ma Yanhe, one of the authors who heads the Tianjin Industrial Biology Institute (TIB), told Chinese media.

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The process involves an inorganic catalyst and three different types of modified enzymes, which convert carbon dioxide into amylose and amylopectin, the two types of glucose molecules in starch. The team said the resulting product had the same molecular structure as the natural variant.

On some metrics, the artificial process is more efficient than that found in nature. Scientists estimate that the conversion rate of carbon dioxide is about 8.5 times that of corn, one of the staple foods used to produce industrial starch. They say that a one cubic meter bioreactor running on their reactions could produce as much product as a 0.33 hectare corn field in their home country, if there was enough energy.

“The design of an artificial biological system to synthesize starch independently of plant photosynthesis is a major disruptive technology that will have a great impact on the world”, an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Global Times.

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If the discovery can be scaled up and made profitable, starch synthesis operations could replace an important part of the agricultural industry. This would free up land, fresh water and other resources currently used in agriculture, reduce dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, and make supplies less dependent on the vagaries of the weather.

It would be very beneficial for things like biodiversity, environmental sustainability and food security, the researchers predicted.

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