Barry Bruce, a professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology leads a team at UT Knoxville that has found the inner machinery of photosynthesis can be isolated from certain algae and, when coupled with a platinum catalyst, is able to produce a steady supply of hydrogen when exposed to light.

Algae Hydrogen Production. Click image for more info.

Algae Hydrogen Production. Click image for more info.

So far researchers have been stymied about how to create usable hydrogen that is clean and sustainable without relying on an intensive, high-energy process that outweighs the benefits of not using petroleum to power vehicles.  Hydrogen also has many roles in industrial uses from vary large volumes sourced from natural gas for nitrogen fertilizers to small fabrication jobs using hydrogen as a reactant.

The UT team working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is showing that photosynthesis – the process by which plants regenerate using energy from the sun – may function as that clean, sustainable source of hydrogen.

Their paper is published in the November 8 2009 issue of Nature Nanotechnology, DOI:10.1038/nnano.2009.315.

The abstracts sets out the path – a photosystem I from a thermophilic bacterium and cytochrome-c6 can, in combination with a platinum catalyst, generate a stable supply of hydrogen in vitro upon illumination.  The self-organized platinization of the photosystem I nanoparticles allows electron transport from sodium ascorbate to photosystem I via cytochrome-c6 and finally to the platinum catalyst, where hydrogen gas is formed.

Now this is major news if it can get to scale.  The reason is the operating temperatures for the algae.  Bruce and his colleagues found that by starting with a thermophilic blue-green algae, which favors warmer temperatures, they could sustain the reaction at temperatures as high as 55 degrees C, or 131 degrees F. That is roughly the temperature in arid deserts with high solar irradiation, where the process would be most productive. They also found the process was more than 10 times more efficient as the temperature increased.

Bruce Bursten, dean of UT Knoxville’s College of Arts and Sciences seems to glow saying, “As both a dean and a chemist, I am very impressed with this recent work by Professor Bruce and his colleagues. Hydrogen has the potential to be the cleanest fuel alternative to petroleum, with no greenhouse gas production, and we need new innovations that allow for hydrogen to be readily produced from non-hydrocarbon sources. Professor Bruce and his team have provided a superb example of how excellence in basic research can contribute significantly to technological and societal advances.”

Most of us realize that hydrogen with its Houdini skills at escaping won’t likely be a motor fuel stored at high pressure or cold temperatures, but recombining hydrogen into anhydrous ammonia for fertilizer or fuel, and a wide assortment of carbon chemicals or fuel is huge market that would displace enormous amount of fossil resources.

Bruce explains that we already get most of our energy from photosynthesis, albeit indirectly.  The fossil fuels of today were once, millions of years ago, energy-rich plant matter whose growth also was supported by the sun via the process of photosynthesis. There have been efforts to shorten this process, mainly through the creation of biomass fuels that harvest plants and covert their hydrocarbons into ethanol or biodiesel.

A major benefit of Bruce’s method is that it cuts out the two key “middlemen” in the process of using plants’ solar conversion abilities. The first middleman is the long time and geological processes required for plant life to capture solar energy, grow and reproduce, then die and eventually become a fossil store of energy. The second middleman is energy, in this case the substantial amount of energy required to cultivate, harvest and process plant material into biofuels or biochemicals. Bypassing these two natural processes and directly using the plant or algae’s built-in solar system to create hydrogen could be a major step forward.

Perhaps Bruce’s team has solved using photosynthesis as a hydrogen source.  Other have tried, but have not yet found a way to make the reaction occur efficiently at the high temperatures that would exist in a large system designed to harness sunlight.

With considerable interest we need to wait to see just how much hydrogen is produced over a sunlit area and what the culturing effort requires in investment and maintenance.  It might be that the investment and operating costs are as elusive as the algae to bio-oil effort or just the opposite, as hydrogen simply isn’t going to stay put and won’t have all those harvesting issues that comes with producing oil, but will have its own special considerations.

Re-hooking hydrogen back to nitrogen and carbon are well known processes.  An abundant source of hydrogen, stored perhaps as simply for a period, like through the night, could be a boon to alternative fuels and chemicals.

Congratulations, to Bruce and his team.  This writer shares Dean Bursten’s enthusiasm!


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