Nanotechnology-based Global Artificial Photosynthesis Can Make a Sustainable World – by Thomas Faunce

One of our most important emerging technologies, nanotechnology, has to date been wasted on consumer applications that include clear sunscreens, less smelly shirts and socks, stronger, light weight bicycles and golf clubs. The argument can be made, however, that nanotechnology’s ethical destiny is to become a form of planetary therapeutics. Nanotechnology may be particularly important, for instance, as a mechanism for improving upon photosynthesis and engineering it into all human structures (roads, bridges, houses, skyscrapers, vehicles) for localised production of carbon-neutral hydrogen based-fuel and carbohydrate-based food and fertilizer. Artificial photosynthesis, because of its unique and widespread public and environmental benefits in this period of human history, may even be termed the moral culmination of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology’s noble calling

Nanotechnology is now becoming well known, though not always appreciated in the popular imagination. Concerns exist, for example, that carbon nanotubes when used in building materials that are later demolished may result in the inhalation of particles that could produce pathology similar to asbestos. Yet moves are afoot to make nanotechnology more relevant to the great public health and environmental challenges of our time. Experts have encouraged nanotechnology to systematically contribute to achievement, for example, of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals particularly energy storage, production and conversion, agricultural productivity enhancement, water treatment and remediation. In 2007 Nature Nanotechnology contributed two articles to the Council of Science Editors (CSE) Global Theme Issue on Poverty and Human Development involving scientific journals in 37 countries.

One of the most significant contributions of nanotechnology to such issues is likely to be in a field known as artificial photosynthesis. Nanotechnology researchers now are actively redesigning photosynthesis to achieve, for example, low cost, local-domestic, conversion of sunlight, water and atmospheric carbon dioxide into fuel for heating, lighting, cooking and transportation as well as basic food and fertilizer (conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia). Some nanotechnological innovations for artificial photosynthesis focus on improved light capture. Such systems use mesoporous thin film dye-sensitive solar cells of semiconductor nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes harvesting and conducting the resultant electricity. Nanomaterials and hybrid organic-inorganic nanostructures are improving the solar energy conversion efficiency of existing photovoltaic units that could be used in artificial photosynthesis light capture.

PSII in plants is a complex protein with 27 subunits and 32 co-factors involved in electron transfer and light harvesting. Researchers are working upon making a nanotechnological mimic of this protein (maquette) that is simpler and incorporates designer molecules that prolong charge separation. Nanotechnology is facilitating the construction of artificial photosynthetic electron pathways to this reaction centre that perform a single quantum computation, sensing many states simultaneously and so enhancing the efficiency of the energy capture and transfer at physiological temperatures.

The most globally widespread water catalytic system will probably involve inexpensive and self-repairing components that operate at neutral pH with non-pure (salty or bacterially and chemically contaminated) water and be stable to a variety of exposure conditions in air, water and heat. A major scientific challenge will be to optimise the free energy required for the overall water splitting process. Multiwalled carbon nanotubes and singlewalled carbon nanotubes may produce the critical breakthrough here.

In the artificial photosynthesis version of the “dark reaction”, ATP and NADPH as well as carbon dioxide (CO2) will be used in an enhanced version of the Calvin-Benson cycle to make locally usable food or fuel (for domestic, heating, cooking, light and transport purposes) in the form of carbohydrate via the enzyme RuBisCO. Bio-inspired self-repair strategies will ensure that this aspect survives damage from repeated cycles of thermodynamically demanding reactions. New catalysts for H2 production and methods for efficient H2 usage (in a fuel cell to make electricity) or storage (as a fuel after cooling and concentrating) will need to be built. It may be that methanol will turn out to be, at least in the short term, the most viable fuel produced from this side of the artificial photosynthesis process.

Numerous competitively funded research teams have dedicated artificial photosynthesis-related projects already underway in many developed nations. An international conference coordinated by the author at Lord Howe Island in August 2011 has linked senior artificial photosynthesis and global governance experts purportedly as a precursor to a macroscience Global Artificial Photosynthesis (GAP) Project. Enhanced artificial photosynthesis, if applied equitably, could assist crop production on marginal lands, reduce atmospheric C02 levels, lower geopolitical and military tensions over fossil fuel, food and water scarcity and create carbon-neutral hydrogen fuel for domestic, community and industrial storage.

Governance impacts of Global Artificial Photosynthesis

Establishing the ethical and legal principles for the global dissemination of artificial photosynthesis will be equally important with facilitating the scientific collaborations that will allow it to take place in time to address the major societal and environmental challenges that the expanding human population and its dependence on fossil fuels are currently creating.

It is important to emphasise at the outset that, just as with individual humans, societies develop and maintain virtues through commitment (often based on conscience) to consistently implement ethical principles in the face of obstacles. The great social virtues traditionally include— distributive justice and respect for human dignity. These ideals and their associated principles gradually metamorphose (after political debate and struggle associated with development of a social contract) into specific legal rules, international human rights and enforceable legal rights, the consistent and predictable application of which in turn sustains those foundational virtues.

There are in fact four normative areas with distinct traditions and spheres of activity necessarily operative in considering the ethics of planetary nanomedicine— (1) ethics (personal religious or humanitarian and professional) (2) domestic law (constitutional, judge made as well as legislative enactments), (3) international human rights and (4) international trade and investment law. This is an important way of initially considering the fundamentals of the global governance framework into which will fit a coordinated scientific and policy effort to implement global artificial photosynthesis as a therapeutic arm of planetary nanomedicine.

The traditions of ethics derive from profound consideration of the relations of humans with each other and nature. They should provide a calibration system against which can be critiqued other normative systems (such as legislation and international human rights) as well as instances of behaviour either by natural or artificial corporate persons (such as those in the latter case currently self-interestedly dominating domestic and international trade law and policy).

Environmental sustainability looms as an emerging foundational social virtue which is uniquely non-anthropocentric. Whether conceived as a virtue or ethical principle, environmental sustainability on most formulations necessarily requires consideration of the greatest good of greatest possible number of stakeholders now and into the future. Arguably, thinking sympathetically in this way about as broad a range of ‘others’ as possible, may not only cohere with patterns of symmetry underlying nature, but have indirect personal utilitarian benefits through fostering continuing peaceful relationships.

Environmental sustainability as the primary social virtue of planetary nanomedicine can also be linked with so-called ‘ecocentric’ or ‘biocentric’ ethics. This normative sub-branch is also known by terms such as Gaia Theory, or Deep Ecology and finds semi-formal expression in documents like the Earth Charter or Earth Manifesto. Itinvolves two key moral or ethical principles. The first is that the flourishing and diversity of non-human life-forms has intrinsic value requiring protection by policies and technologies that reduce the number of humans along with their demands on those other species. The second holds that human flourishing itself requires a deepening respect for right relations with ecosystems which should be reflected in the choices our species make about the use of new technologies such as nanotechnology.

In the 17th century the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza wrote in his Ethics (Bk II, Prop. XLIV) that it is the nature of reason properly applied to perceive things truly, that is, as they are in themselves not as contingently existing in past, present or future circumstances revealed to us by sensory experience. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant influentially contended that the capacity to form ethical concepts in the form of goals or end points for future actions based on universally-applicable principles, is a core distinguishing characteristic of the well-developed human mind. It arises, he maintained, proportionally with our capacity to view our place in the world more objectively, including viewing ultimately our understanding of time and space as arising a priori as necessary preconditions for sensory experience (rather than being determined by it). The 20th century physicist Albert Einstein, who was exposed to Kant’s ideas in his youth, probably drew upon this insight (that space and time might exist in ways that seem at odds with everyday sensory experience) to ponder physical anomalies such as why the speed of light is constant regardless of the speed of its source and create his special and general theories of relativity as an answer.

A corollary of such ‘pure’ reasoning, as Kant perceived, was that knowledge (including moral truths about the role of principles and virtues in constraining free will) could also arise from a suprasensible part of nature that has the potential to be true, despite not necessarily correlating with common experience. Such realisation may have been a critical factor in development (particularly by other enlightenment philosophers such as the physician John Locke) of the concept of inalienable human rights (granted by nature to all people) even though such a position had no foundation in sociological facts about governance of the time.

Basing the jurisprudential concept of natural law on physics allows one to suggest that one is ethical when conceiving one’s existence as a waveform and selfish when that reality is viewed as a particle. It facilitates environmental sustainability taking its place alongside the anthropocentric virtues of distributive justice and respect for human dignity. As providing support for the development of governance systems paving the way for global artificial photosynthesis, it will assist the roll out of a technology that will take the pressure of providing for human needs off the natural world and allow it to be accorded rights (enforced in courts via guardians).

Towards a UNESCO Universal Declaration on Photosynthesis and Environmental Sustainability

A macroscience project to promote equitable global use of artificial photosynthesis therefore represents an excellent opportunity to create a high profile awareness of nanotechnology as a positive contributor to overcoming major contemporary public health and environmental problems. Provided an appropriate ethical regulatory structure was in place, such a GAP project could well be promoted through domestic and international media as a defining symbolic endeavour of planetary nanomedicine.

One particular area of looming conflict will be between these ethical virtues and principles and the intellectual monopoly privileges (IMPs) such as patents. Many of the nanotechnological techniques and structures, as well as the artificial proteins involved in artificial photosynthesis, will be the subject of patent and other claims of IMP (particularly patents). In most jurisdictions the relevant patent offices will require that their inventors claim such contributions to be novel, inventive (non-obvious in the USA) and useful, with a specification complete enough to allow others to make the device without undue experimentation. If excessive patents cause artificial photosynthesis ownership to become fragmented, ‘follow-on’ research may be hampered by the high cost and difficulty in negotiating contracts with large numbers of patent owners.

A UNESCO Universal Declaration on Photosynthesis and Environmental Sustainability could apply to individuals, communities and private corporations as well as States. It could specify that photosynthesis in its natural form should be considered a subject to common heritage of humanity principles (like, under specific United Nations Declarations and Conventions, the human genome, the moon, outerspace, the deep sea bed, our natural or cultural world heritage) or indeed a part of a new category of ethical and international law principles in the category of planetary common heritage. A statement in such a UNESCO Declaration that photosynthesis (in ether its natural or artificial forms) was the common heritage of humanity could be important in wider governance moves to restrict corporate ownership through intellectual property rights or misuse by nation states for strategic or military purposes. Other questions may involve developing specific principles by which artificial photosynthesis technology can best address, within defined time pressures, critical problems of global poverty and environmental degradation.


Prof. Faunce has a joint appointment in the Australian National University College of Law and College of Medicine, Biology and the Environment. He is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow and has been awarded four ARC Discovery grants in the field of health and nanotechnology regulation. He has published over a hundred refereed articles and over 25 book chapters in this field. 
His most recent book is ‘Nanotechnology for a Sustainable World: Global Artificial Photosynthesis as the Moral Culmination of Nanotechnology’.  He has also made a number of contributions to the media on the topic of artificial photosynthesis, recently speaking to the BBC and RadioNational.

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