Global Artificial Photosynthesis: Challenges for Bioethics and the Human Right to Enjoy the Benefit of Scientific Progress

Southern Cross University Law Review 2012, Vol 15, pps. 21-37

17 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2013

Date Written: March 19, 2013


So what is artificial photosynthesis and why is it important? Most of us knew that photosynthesis is the process whereby plants and certain bacteria have used sunlight as a source of energy to split water to create energy fro the production of food (starches) with the addition of atmospheric carbon dioxide, while producing atmospheric oxygen. Our policy makers seem to think that only plants will ever 'do' photosynthesis. This is a bit like the men at the end of the 19th century who were convinced that only birds could ‘do’ controlled flight. If they were alive today their solution for long distance air travel might be to genetically engineer huge homing pigeons, capable of carrying passengers on their back.

Artificial photosynthesis began in the Cold War. It really was part of what was known in the 'Dr Stangelove' film as the 'mine-shaft' gap, part of the plan to enhance the capacity of the United States to keep its politicians, senior industrial and military people alive during a nuclear winter. Although artificial photosynthesis on some definitions includes synthetic biology (for example the genetic engineering of bacetria to produce lipid-based fuels) its core research involves nanoscale engineering. The nanoscale involves manipulating matter at the level of about a billionth of a metre, it involves making objects atom by atom. Some examples of how nanotechnology is already improving the light capture, electron transport and water splitting and energy storage aspects of artificial photosynthesis will be presented later.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of artificial photosynthesis is the prospect that nanotechnology may allow the global domestic production of cheap, 'off-grid' solar fuels and food. With timely and coordinated government, academic, corporate encouragement, artificial photosynthesis may become a global phenomenon, deriving inexpensive, local (household and community) generation of fuels and basic foods from simple raw materials – sunlight, water and carbon dioxide – just like plants do, only better.

One way governance principles (such as those derived from international human rights) can assist this process is by assisting to create the normative architecture for a Global Artificial Photosynthesis project (GAP) (or Global Solar Fuels and Foods (GSF)) project. Such a macroscience GAP or GSF project can be regarded as the moral culmination of nanotechnology. It could advance existing foundational virtues of international human rights such as justice equity and respect for human dignity, as well as emerging virtues such as environmental sustainability. In other words, this is one area where we need to have law and science rapidly and efficiently working side by side if it's going to work in time to make a difference and assist humanity to move from what (as we will see) is now no longer being called the Holocene, but the Anthropocene, towards the Sustainocene epoch.

One hitherto largely unexplored area of international human rights that could be significant in this context concerns the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications.

Keywords: solar energy, solar fuels, renewable energy, artificial photosynthesis, right to enjoy the benefit of scientific knowledge, international human rights, economic social and cultural rights

JEL Classification: Q15, Q16, Q25, Q26, H41, Q42, K22, K32, K33

Suggested Citation

Faunce, Thomas Alured, Global Artificial Photosynthesis: Challenges for Bioethics and the Human Right to Enjoy the Benefit of Scientific Progress (March 19, 2013). Southern Cross University Law Review 2012, Vol 15, pps. 21-37. Available at SSRN:

Thomas Alured Faunce (Contact Author)

Australian National University ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200
61 2 61253563 (Phone)

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