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Nanomaterials July 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Artificial Photosynthesis

Why is this topic significant?

Rising levels of atmospheric CO2 are causing climate change and having an adverse effect on the environment. Artificial photosynthesis offers a potential means of mitigating these problems.

In April 2015 scientists from the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, published the results of their research into a novel artificial photosynthesis system. The system could enable the capture and conversion of carbon dioxide—CO2—simultaneously producing valuable chemicals and reducing atmospheric concentrations of the potent greenhouse gas. The technique involves filling the gaps between an array of silicon nanowires with an anaerobic bacteria. The semiconducting nanowires harvest solar energy to produce electron-hole pairs, providing a supply of electrons to the bacteria. The bacteria, in turn, secrete enzymes that use these electrons to reduce CO2 to more-useful chemicals such as acetate.

In their proof-of-concept device, the researchers kept separate the process of catalyzing the reduction of CO2 and further synthesis steps that produce more useful chemicals. However, in future iterations, the researchers hope to combine the two into a single process. A Berkeley Lab press release states that the researchers are also currently working on a second-generation system that should improve the solar-to-chemical conversion efficiency from 0.4% to 3%. Commercialization of the device will be a viable option if the researchers can reach conversion efficiencies of about 10%.

Implications

The Berkeley Lab device—based on a hybrid nanomaterial—remains at an early stage in its development cycle and, as such, will result in few immediate implications. However, the development does represent a significant step forward in the field of artificial photosynthesis, and it could eventually impact several industrial sectors. For example, the researchers behind the system state that it "has the potential to fundamentally change the chemical and oil industry in that we can produce chemicals and fuels in a totally renewable way, rather than extracting them from deep below the ground." Artificial photosynthetic processes such as this could provide a valuable supply of feedstock chemicals for the pharmaceutical, plastics, and fuel industries. The possibility of employing various bacteria and subsequent conversion reactions to produce a range of chemicals makes this process particularly attractive. However, the Berkeley device requires significant additional research and development before it can potentially contribute to such processes at an industrial scale.

Impacts/Disruptions

This development demonstrates the type of results achievable through combining materials science and biology, rather than focusing on only one discipline. Despite significant improvements in clean energy over the last few years, fossil-fuel sources are still likely to play a large part in the energy landscape for the foreseeable future. The ongoing use of fossil fuels will generate a sizable market for carbon sequestration technologies—such as the one under development at Berkeley Lab. Many competing technologies for carbon sequestration either already exist or are under development. As ever, cost effectiveness and performance will determine which of these technologies become commercially viable ventures.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 15 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Oil, plastic, pharmaceutical, agriculture, chemical

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Developments in Nanomaterials Regulations

Why is this topic significant?

Nanomaterials legislation affects virtually all industrial sectors. Recent regulatory developments will affect US and Canadian companies in particular.

Description

In March 2015 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the introduction of regulations governing the control of nanomaterials—the first time the organization specifically targeted the use of nanoscale materials. The proposals include enforcing companies' requirement to report on nanomaterials that they manufacture, import, process, or sell. An EPA press release states that for the first time the agency proposes to "collect existing exposure and health and safety information on chemicals currently in the marketplace when manufactured or processed as nanoscale materials." The EPA hopes to gather information such as chemical identity, production volume, manufacturing methods, and health and safety data.

Additionally, in April 2015 the Canadian government proposed the introduction of similar procedures to control the use of nanomaterials in Canada. The Canadian approach would involve establishing a comprehensive inventory of nanomaterials in the country, and prioritizing these materials for further action where necessary. To construct the inventory the government will issue a mandatory survey, investigate the possibility of sourcing information from jurisdictions beyond the health and safety sector, and instigate cross-border cooperation with the United States.

Implications

Neither the EPA announcement nor the Canadian government proposal will result in immediate changes to the control of nanomaterials. Both organizations appear to be focusing on the collection of information at this stage—no companies would be under any obligation to restrict the use of nanomaterials or implement any significant procedural changes. However, the likelihood of these developments paving the way for tighter federal regulation of nanoscale materials—particularly in industries that directly interact with consumers—appears to be high. Both the US and the Canadian authorities aim to use the information that they gather to determine what, if any, specific control measures for nanomaterials are necessary. Nevertheless, these developments give a clear indication that the countries are catching up with the European Union—which tends to impose more strict regulation of nanoengineered compounds. The developments also provide clarity for industry stakeholders on a hotly debated issue. However, questions remain about how companies will react to increased red tape and whether the EPA has the resources to crack down on noncompliance.

Impacts/Disruptions

Introducing stricter legislation can raise barriers to commercialization by limiting the use of materials, curbing the development of products, and negatively affecting public perception of nanomaterials. Conversely, the imposition of regulations can also drive innovation and lead to commercial opportunities, impelling researchers to find novel methods and materials that do not violate health and safety statutes.

The preparation of comprehensive materials databases is a vital step on the road to effective legislation governing the use of nanomaterials. However, their wide range of physical, chemical, and biological properties is an important characteristic of nanomaterials; any future legislation should take this variety into account.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Food, consumer products, electronics, health care

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: