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New global solar fuel project to improve on photosynthesis

Plants are expert photosynthesisers, but humans are catching up. Galactic Circus Diplodocus/Flickr

Plants have been making fuel and food from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide for billions of years. Oil, coal, wood and natural gas can be called “old-photosynthesis” fuels.

As the human population approaches nine billion, it is critical that we find a way to produce our fuel and food that doesn’t degrade our environment the way our overuse of “old photosynthesis” fuels is.

Researchers in many nations are using nanotechnology to improve the way plants use sunlight to split water to create hydrogen fuel as well as oxygen. When hydrogen fuel is burned it produces not carbon dioxide, but fresh water.

What they are aiming to do is make a process called “artificial photosynthesis”.

They are using nanotechnology to harvest more solar energy. These quantum coherence methods get the electrons more efficiently to artificial proteins that not only mimic but improve the photosynthetic apparatus of plants.

Researchers are designing hydrogen fuel cells that efficiently burn the fuel created and carbon fixation processes to make starches and ethanol from CO2.

President Obama has invested $122 million in the Joint Center of Articificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) headed by Professor Peidong Yang.

In Europe the Solar H network is headed by Stenbjorn Styring. Nobel prize winning chemist Prof Negishi has started a multi-centre artificial photosynthesis project based at Hokkaido University.

Yale, MIT, Imperial College London and many Australian universities have large artificial photosynthesis research groups.

Professor Yang is confident teams such as his will understand how to improve photosynthesis using nanotechnology in his lifetime.

Can we wait that long? Do we need a Big Science Global Artificial Photosynthesis (GAP) project to speed the process along?

Why do we need a big science artificial photosynthesis project?

In the 1800s most people believed that only birds would ever fly. Likewise, most people today still believe that only plants can “do” photosynthesis.

Both of these conceptual barriers have, can and need to be overcome by human ingenuity and technology.

The energy demands of an expanding human population and the ecological damage caused by reliance on “old-photosynthesis” fuels and nuclear power make artificial photosynthesis a critical scientific challenge of our age. It is perhaps even more important for human health than was decoding the human genome (the task of the international Human Genome Project).

Imagine if artificial photosynthesis devices became as readily accessible across the world as mobile phones or the internet.

Such a new mass market energy and food-producing technology, if rolled out equitably, could reduce the global economy’s dependence on ecologically-damaging “old photosynthesis” fuels. It might make buildings, cars, planes and ships producers of their own fuel.

Global artificial photosynthesis could replace globalisation as a model of economic growth. Economies might restructure to emphasise smaller locally-powered units, minimising the energy used in gathering raw materials and low-cost labor to make and transport goods for use in other countries.

Nanotechnology-based artificial photosynthesis systems may involve large coastal plants splitting sea water. They could use sunlight captured in desert areas to produce carbon-neutral hydrogen-based fuels. When burned, such hydrogen fuels would also provide fresh water for the city more efficiently than current desalination plants.

This is as much about governance as science

Establishing the appropriate ethical and legal principles for global artificial photosynthesis will be as important for a GAP project as it was for the Human Genome Project.

The latter dedicated a specific amount of money for research into such issues. This was important in gathering large-scale public support.

Statements on bioethics and human rights by international organisations (such as the United Nations or UNESCO) will shape the principles underpinning the equitable global roll-out artificial photosynthesis.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals, for instance, are focused on energy storage, production and conversion, agricultural productivity enhancement, water treatment and remediation. These are issues which a GAP project would directly address

The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (particularly the social responsibility principle in article 14(b)) similarly highlights problems that a successful GAP project would alleviate. These are problems like “access to adequate nutrition and water”, “improvement in living conditions and the environment” and “reduction in poverty and illiteracy”.

The first international conference dedicated to creating a Global Artificial Photosynthesis (GAP) project will be in Australia at Lord Howe Island on 14-18 August 2011. It has endorsement from the UNESCO Natural Science Sector.

Speakers will include national and international experts in various aspects of artificial photosynthesis, such as photovoltaics, hydrogen fuel cells, quantum coherence in electron transfer and international governance systems.

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