To say that an invention has the potential to change the world is often an overstatement, but here's a case where the phrase seems to fit: Royal College of Art graduate Julian Melchiorri has created the world's first man-made, biologically functional "leaf," reports Dezeen.

To get your mind around just how world-altering this invention could be, first understand just how important normal vegetation is for life on Earth. As the only organisms capable of converting sunlight into food, plants are the powerhouses that produce all of the sustenance on Earth. This process also produces the oxygen that we breath, and scrubs the air of pollutants and excess carbon dioxide, and helps to regulate the planet's climate.

Melchiorri's invention can potentially duplicate many of these benefits with a man-made material. In fact, this artificial leaf could potentially do even more, by allowing our astronauts to travel longer distances in space and possibly even colonize new planets.

"Plants don't grow in zero gravity," explained Melchiorri. "NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space. This material could allow us to explore space much further than we can now."

The man-made leaf, which was developed as part of the Royal College of Art's Innovation Design Engineering course in collaboration with Tufts University silk lab, is made from chloroplasts that are suspended in a silk protein matrix. The chloroplasts are derived from plant cells, and the silk protein is extracted from natural silk fibers. Like the leaves of a plant, the material requires only exposure to sunlight and a small amount of water to produce oxygen. 

"Silk Leaf is the first man-made biological leaf," claimed Melchiorri. "It's very light, low energy-consuming, it's completely biological."

The potential applications for the invention are countless. Aside from producing oxygen for astronauts, the Silk Leaf could also be used as building material to produce clean air for buildings. Melchiorri has even developed some simple home uses for the material, such as lampshades that produce oxygen while they beautify. Most importantly, though, the material could serve as an artificial carbon offset and thus help regulate Earth's climate and combat global warming. Deforested land could potentially be offset with buildings and other structures that are lined with Silk Leaf material.

You can view a video presentation of the incredible Silk Leaf below:

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Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

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