Spinning off under RRI Principles: BioGAS+ by Applied Nanoparticles SL
Posted by Applied Nanoparticles SL on 01 Aug 2016
The urgency in tackling climate change and promoting renewable sources of energy has been unanimously agreed globally by the UN General Assembly when adopting the New Sustainable Development Agenda (Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development) and it is the responsibility of all citizens, including the scientific and business communities. Aligned with this broad framework, the EU is building a regulatory framework favouring the development of energy from renewable sources that, ideally, should be closely linked to increased energy efficiency and decentralized energy production.
Every molecule of CH4 ends up being oxidized to CO2 and a molecule of CH4 causes up to 20 times more greenhouse effect than a molecule of CO2. From this perspective, it is the responsibility of everyone, in order to create a cleaner planet with a more stable atmosphere, to prevent CH4 from entering the atmosphere and rather to introduce it into our stoves, vehicles and heaters.
Interestingly, in this context, in conditions of anaerobic breakdown, in the absence of oxygen, small doses of mixed iron oxide nanoparticles (NPs) serve as a catalyst that stimulates bacteria metabolism and accelerates the production of biogas up to three times with cellulose as feedstock in laboratory conditions (DIN-38414). Precisely, the core project and main reason for setting up Applied Nanoparticles SL has been the commercial exploitation of a patent based on the use of engineered iron oxide NPs for enhanced biogas production, named BioGAS+.
The Company started to work with RRI principles when the main focus was on “emerging technologies” (nanotechnology, synthetic biology, geo-engineering, stem cell science, etc.), so potential controversial areas of research and innovation at an early stage of development, and where the day to day work on the lab was of paramount importance on the whole conceptual architecture. Within this framework (and considering that the majority of innovation in nanotechnology is based on University and Research Centres spin-off companies) it seems to be lacking effective policies for helping them to balance societal and economic considerations (because it is clear that nowadays, promotion outweighs precaution). Within these supporting policies, equal access to the marketplace is of paramount importance: as per today, to develop products under RRI require more time and economic resources (at least in the short term). This situation makes developments under RRI a voluntary and moral decision (as with Corporate Social Responsibility –CSR-) that will never have a real impact in changing current technoscience trajectories and, in the end, in global economic dynamics.
For these reasons, we do consider that RRI have to be understood as a normative-political orientation that seeks to alter the present sociotechnical order, so steeped in the philosophy of deliberative democracy and in social constructivist approaches of science.
Turning to the daily work from the laboratory, our involvement with RRI can be summarized as follows:
- Regarding Product dimension: safety and sustainability
Regarding Safety (and taking advantage of the previous experience of our personnel working with nanoparticles and nanomaterials), the use of dry powders is avoided and work is always done in wet phase, so reducing exposure and associated risk. Additionally, broader Nanosafety Guidances and Frameworks published by some European institutions focused on nanosafety are followed (basically "NanoRiskCat – A Conceptual Decision Support Tool for Nanomaterials" and "Working Safely with Nanomaterials in Research & Development" -developed by The UK NanoSafety Partnership Group and the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) within the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the UK Government-).
Regarding Sustainability, Applied Nanoparticles SL follows the Principles of Green Chemistry developed by Paul Anastas and John Warner on 1998. Our main product, BioGAS+, is based on magnetite (Fe3O4) nanoparticles. Our raw materials (iron I and II chlorides) derive from natural abundant oxides, cannot be considered scarce or non-renewable feedstock, and are innocuous or of very low toxic nature. Moreover, in our production process the nanoparticles are synthesized in situ in aqueous media at room temperature and are always processed as a colloid, never as a dry powder, thus avoiding airborne exposure. Being carried out at room temperature, the production process has a very low energetic demand (except from the generation of the required stirring power). In terms nanoparticles degradation, the size and dose of the nanoparticles are purposely designed to completely dissolve during the tens of days of a standard anaerobic digestion. In terms of waste management, the by-products of the synthesis are basic waters from purification steps, which are recycled and reused as starting basic solution for further synthesis.
- Regarding Process Dimension: Stakeholders involvement, Transparency and Responsible Awareness.
Although acknowledging that the continuous and consistent involvement of society in the research and innovation process is one key aspect of RRI, it has to be recognised that, from the perspective of a start-up, the task has to be approached with caution and respect. It is not only the economic constrains but also the inherent difficulty in setting up public engagement practices (methods of participation, the purposes, the evaluation criteria, etc.). For these reasons, we have chosen to involve stakeholders and society by promoting a permanent dialogue through our Twitter account and our open source monthly newsletter. These tools goes well beyond current information services as our aim is to filter, curate and contextualize information in the fields of biogas and nanotechnology. Our objective is to generate debate (inside and outside our company) on fundamental topics. From an RRI perspective, one of such topics is the ethical debates around biogas. It has to be underlined that such debates are influencing our approach to market (and our business plan).
Regarding Transparency we would just like to point out the increasing problem to transparency posed by the generalization of Non Disclosure Agreements (NDA) that have to be signed with every possible client and supplier and at a very early stage of any negotiation.
Finally, we turn to the Responsibility Awareness: Following Schuurbiers we consider that researchers have a moral responsibility to critically reflect on the wider socio-ethical context of their work (value-based socio-ethical premises of research; epistemological and ontological assumptions; methodological norms of scientific culture; the socio-ethical consequences of research). In this sense, as we are working in and from the laboratory, we are especially interested in the “midstream” phase as an opportunity for addressing social and ethical concerns. While preparing the ground for the effective application of modulation strategies in our company we have been closely following the “midstream modulation” framework and the STIR project methodologies.
Having in mind our economic and human constrains we have structured the modulation around periodical informal review meetings. In those meetings we analyse and discuss the technology and business parts of our business and the most interesting information published by our newsletter. Overall, a wide range of topics are reviewed (environmental health and safety, sustainability, patenting, long-term research and business strategies, ethical issues and the responsibility of scientists to communicate with society). Considering that our scientists have been working under RRI related principles for a long time, we considered appropriate to point to potential social and ethical aspects (accepting the “tracker-dog” role) and simultaneously to use the SocioTechnical Integration Research (STIR) decision protocol. In this sense, our experience could point to a “two way embedding” between social and natural scientists. All members of the organization, whatever his/her background, become involved and aware of the social and institutional constraints in which we have to operate (balancing scientific and commercial interests, coping with the demands of clients, the complexities of research practices etc.).
Victor Puntes (corresponding author), Josep Saldaña and Ignasi Gispert
Victor Puntes, Josep Saldaña and Ignasi Gispert work at Applied Nanoparticles SL
 Schuurbiers, D., “Social Responsibility in Research Practice. Engaging applied scientists with the socio-ethical context of their work”. Ed. Brey, P., Kroes, P., Meijers, A. 2010.
 SocioTechnical Integration Research (STIR) led by E. Fisher.
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