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I'm thinking of some sort of machine the size of a house or factory building which produces nutrient paste/cubes/wafers/pills using some of the basic materials/chemicals and energy which are required to run a farm today. Which materials would be required to sustain such a system?

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    $\begingroup$ Hi, would you be able to clarify your question please - what technology do they have that we don't? And what do you mean by basic materials to run a farm? - I would have thought that basic materials to run a modern day farm are things like tractors, feed for animals, seeds for planting, which I can't really visualise being man-made into edible nutrient-food-stuffs. Also, such a thing doesn't exist in the modern day world, and if it could be done using things 'required to run a farm today', it would probably already be done, yet it's not, so how do you believe that it's even possible? $\endgroup$ – Mithrandir24601 Jan 12 '17 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ I believe it is possible because we already have systems for creating nutrients using biological systems (cultivation of plants and animals). We add materials and energy (feed, fertilizers, sunlight) and we get the nutrients we need. Optimizing this process can involve hydroponics or plant tissue cultures. However if you want to optimize the process further, forgoing the use of biological systems to produce nutrients might be an option. $\endgroup$ – Nii Jan 12 '17 at 10:14
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Nanotechnology and power.

Advanced nanotechnology could be used to build the necessary molecules and even duplicate natural foods quite well. But, do so with an engineered purpose and be orders of magnitude smaller than a natural ecosystem.

To run it, you need power. Input energy to drive the machinery. Since it builds up tissue much faster than natural plants, it needs more power, faster. Since it is smaller than natural plants it can’t devote expansive areas to solar collectors.

As for “materials”, nanotech based on what we see in cells will use the same kinds of atoms. So, it is made from the same stuff that it is manipulating.

More novel tech might make use of catalysts that use the full variety of existing elements, including platinum group metals and rare earth metals. These would be needed in smaller amounts than current tech, but greater than what’s found in organic material. So, besides taking what it needs from the compost it’s reforming into food, it need supplements from carefully sourced minerals.

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  • $\begingroup$ If we start to utilize more catalytic reactions for novel tech, on what basis do you come to the conclusion that we would need smaller amounts of catalyst than current tech? Do you simply assume that we will increase efficiency? What about if we increase efficiency but use more as we figure out more reactions which requires catalysis? $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Jan 12 '17 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ Modern tech uses crude bulk quantities of an element. Catalysts in living cells use a single atom as part of a complex made from protein. I think this video … IAC the lectures at SLAC frequently cover catalysts. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 12 '17 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ This can be implemented by some bacteria. Think about algae, it can already be used as a food. With bacteria this is more implementable, as bacteria also controls these processes. For bacteria it does not need to be as advanced technology as for nano. Same thing happens, but within the bacteria cells. $\endgroup$ – user3644640 Jan 12 '17 at 10:04
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    $\begingroup$ @user3644640 yes, bacteria can make individual proteins for harvesting, and is a rich source of nanotech primitive components and ideas to reuse. You won’t get simply-engineered bacteria to deposit a steak in the vat, though. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 12 '17 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe not a steak, but they have deposited a burger. As for the catalysts, we don't really pour bulk amounts into a reaction vessel and hope it goes about it's business. To use catalysts properly, we need a lot of surface area; this means that we deposit small quantities on carrier materials which allows us to use very little catalyst in total. But you are correct, we are not as efficient as nature yet. My point was, though, that even if we increase efficiency we might need more as we use it to build more. $\endgroup$ – Mrkvička Jan 12 '17 at 10:14

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