Hydrogen gas is one of the heavily used industrial fuels and since being climate-neutral offers exciting new possibilities as an energy source in the future. However, today’s hydrogen production involves a considerable amount of energy, potentially limiting its use for future energy needs.
An international research team from the University of Bristol and Harbin Institute of Technology in China has discovered a greener way to produce hydrogen from algae. They built tiny droplet-based microbial factories that produce hydrogen when exposed to daylight under natural aerobic conditions.
The research published in Nature Communications was conducted by Professor Stephen Mann and Dr. Mei Li from Bristol’s School of Chemistry and Professor Xin Huang and colleagues at Harbin Institute of Technology in China.
Usually, during photosynthesis, algae using sunlight fix carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The team trapped ten thousand or so algal cells in droplets sugary droplets, which were then crammed together by osmotic compression. Since the cells were buried deep in the droplets, oxygen levels fell to a level resulting in the activation of a special enzyme called hydrogenases. Hydrogenases hijacked the photosynthesis process and produced hydrogen. In essence, scientists tweaked the photosynthesis process of algae to produce hydrogen instead of oxygen.
With each microbial factory at one-tenth of a millimeter, a millimeter of water can make around a quarter of a million microbial factories. By coating the micro-reactors with a thin shell of bacteria to scavenge for oxygen, the scientists were able to induce hydrogenase activity in more algal cells resulting in an increased level of hydrogen production.
According to Professor Stephen Mann, Co-Director of the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology at Bristol, “Using simple droplets as vectors for controlling algal cell organization and photosynthesis in synthetic micro-spaces offers a potentially environmentally benign approach to hydrogen production that we hope to develop in future work.”
Professor Xin Huang at Harbin Institute of Technology added that their methodology is scalable and doesn’t impair the viability of the living cells.
The work is in its early stage, but it is a big step towards photobiological green energy development under natural aerobic conditions.
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