Artificial Photosynthesis: Why Bill Gates Calls the Potential “Magical”

Harnessing the power of photosynthesis may be able to produce all the hydrogen for energy we need.


When we think of energy from sunlight, we usually think of solar power. But there may be another, even more exciting possibility that scientist have been working on: artificial photosynthesis (AP). If it can be made to work, it would result in hydrogen that could be used as is, or combined with other molecules into liquid form. "If it works it would be magical," Bill Gates told Reuters recently, “because with liquids you don't have the intermittency problem batteries. You can put the liquid into a big tank and burn it whenever you want.”

The upshot: It’s hoped that AP could go a long way towards meeting our energy needs for operating running our cars and even powering our urban areas.

Professor Leone Spiccia from the School of Chemistry at Monash tells World Economic Forum, “Electrochemical splitting of water could provide a cheap, clean and renewable source of hydrogen as the ultimately sustainable fuel.

We all studied photosynthesis in school: It’s the process by which plants convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. The idea of artificial photosynthesis is to use sunlight to split up water into hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. It can potentially even work with river water. It’s the hydrogen AP can produce that’s most intriguing for energy purposes.

The hydrogen produced by AP could be used directly by fuel cells in the electric cars now being produced. And re-combining AP’s hydrogen, water, and carbon in the right balance — four parts hydrogen, one part oxygen and one part carbon — produce methanol, the simplest hydrocarbon that can power combustion engines. In addition, hydrogen can be used as a form of cheap storage for energy captured by rooftop solar panels. 

The main issue holding back the use of AP is how inefficiently photosynthesis works in nature. Only about 1% of water and carbon is converted into carbohydrates in plants. In lab conditions, however, that efficiency has already been upped to around 10%. And now, researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, have used AP to produce hydrogen with 22% efficiency. “This latest breakthrough is significant in that it takes us one step further towards this becoming a reality,” says Spiccia.

(MONASH UNIVERSITY FACULTY OF SCIENCE)

As for Gates, he’s put together the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of private investors from across the globe. The idea is for them to provide research seed money that supplements basic research funded by governments. He considers the complacent assumptions of the energy sector to be ripe for disruption. "We need to surprise them that these alternative ways of doing energy can come along and come along in an economic way," he says. It’s imperative that new forms of energy like AP are developed. "If we are to avoid the levels of warming that are dangerous we need to move at full speed,” he says.

(THEGATESNOTES)

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.