The principal aim of BioSolar Cells is to make a contribution to the sustainable supply of energy and food. Whether it’s about producing tomatoes more efficiently, getting biofuel out of algae or designing a new solar cell, public opinion is divided when it comes to issues of
sustainability, and food and energy supply. The same is true for a number of modern techniques and methods that BioSolar Cells uses in its research programme, such as genetic modification and nanotechnology.
Food versus fuel
One area of public debate concerns the use of farmland to produce biofuels. For example, maize is being used to produce bio-ethanol, and rapeseed and oil palm to produce biodiesel. These activities can lead to a reduction in crops grown for food. This discussion is referred to as the 'food versus fuel debate'.
New generation biofuels
The argument that the production of biofuels takes place at the cost of food production seems less valid for the new generation of biofuels, which are produced from household, industrial and agricultural waste products. Edible parts of crops are first extracted, and remains such as straw, stubble or manure are used as the raw material for fuels. The use of algae takes this trend a step further: algae are grown in salt-water ponds, so no farmland is used at all.
Bio-based or bio-inspired?
Biobased alternatives for fossil resources are criticised for their impact on food supply. Moreover, plants are not very efficient in converting energy from sunlight into chemical energy: fuels and feedstock for industry. Therefore, scientists are developing technologies to cionvert sunlight directly into fuels and feedstock by splitting water and recycling CO2. A detailed description of world wide research and the role of the BioSolar Cells program in this field, and its potential to contribute to more sustainable supply of energy and feedstock, is described in the publication 'Solar Fuels and Artifical Photosynthesis' that can be downloaded here (PDF, 2.3 Mb)
The further development of sustainable energy sources and the market for sustainable energy are to a large extent determined by government energy policy. The International Energy Agency has identified the continuing government subsidization of fossil energy sources as a key factor in this. Dutch energy analysts have shown that the Dutch government provides far more financial support to the fossil energy market than to developing sustainable energy. At the same time, according to a European think tank for climate policy, by 2021 electricity generated from sustainable sources will cost hardly more than electricity generated from fossil fuels.
Interventions in the genetic material of living organisms and in fundamental processes such as photosynthesis can give rise to ethical questions. These include questions pertaining to ‘rule-based ethics’, such as ‘How far should we be allowed to go?’ and ‘virtue ethics’ questions, concerning the consequences arising from interventions.