An MIT team has found a novel way using a modified virus as a kind of biological scaffold that can assemble the nanoscale components needed to split a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen atoms.  The virus constructions use the power of sunlight for splitting the water and make the chemical fuels to power their growth.

The MIT team is led by Angela Belcher, the Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering. Using a common, harmless bacterial virus called M13 the team engineered the virus so that it would attract and bind with molecules of a catalyst, iridium oxide and a biological pigment zinc porphyrins. The viruses built wire-like devices that could very efficiently split the oxygen from water molecules.

Virus Built Water Splitter Schematic and Lab Setup. Click image for more info.

Splitting water is one way to solve the basic problem of storing solar energy.  By using sunlight to extract the hydrogen from water, hydrogen can then be stored and used later to generate electricity using a fuel cell, or to make liquid fuels, or be used directly powering cars, trucks and other mobile equipment.  Researchers have made systems that use electricity provided by solar panels to split water molecules, but the new biologically based system skips the intermediate steps and uses sunlight to power the reaction directly.

Professor Belcher’s team with doctoral student Yoon Sung Nam as the lead author has a paper just published in the April 11 Nature Nanotechnology.

In the course of the experimentation of using the new virus constructions the virus-wires would clump together and lose their effectiveness, so the researchers added an extra step: encapsulating them in a microgel matrix, so they maintained their uniform arrangement and kept their stability and efficiency.

Breaking out the oxygen is the most challenging part of extracting hydrogen gas that can be made fuel ready.  Belcher explains the team has focused on this part of the process.  Plants and cyanobacteria also known as blue-green algae, she says, “have evolved highly organized photosynthetic systems for the efficient oxidation of water.”  Researchers have tried to use the photosynthetic parts of plants directly for harnessing sunlight, but these materials can have structural stability issues.

Belcher’s innovation begins from a decision that instead of borrowing plants’ components, she would borrow their methods. In plant cells, natural pigments are used to absorb sunlight, while catalysts then promote the water-splitting reaction. That’s the simplified explanation of the process Belcher and her team decided to imitate. She says, “We use components people have used before, but we use biology to organize them for us, so you get better efficiency.”

Virus Water Splitter Visualization Graphic. Click image for more info.

In the team’s system, the viruses simply act as a kind of scaffolding, causing the pigments and catalysts to line up with the right kind of spacing to trigger the water-splitting reaction. The role of the pigments is “to act as an antenna to capture the light,” Belcher explains, “and then transfer the energy down the length of the virus, like a wire. The virus with the zinc porphyrins attached is a very efficient harvester of light.

Nam points out using the virus to make the system assemble itself improves the efficiency of the oxygen production fourfold.  Building a water splitter powered by sunlight that “constructs itself” is a stunner of an idea and amazing that it works.

The team plans to find a similar biologically based system to perform the other half of the process, the production of hydrogen. Currently, the hydrogen atoms from the water get split into their component protons and electrons; a second part of the system, now being developed, would combine these back into hydrogen atoms and molecules.  They’re also working to find a more commonplace, less-expensive material for the catalyst, to replace the relatively rare and costly iridium used in the proof-of-concept study.

Professor Belcher will not even speculate about how long it might take to develop this into a commercial product, but she says that within two years she expects to have a self-sustaining and durable system prototype device that can carry out the whole process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen.

The whole story just reeks of ingenuity and clever thinking.  The story must be packed with some fascinating brain storming sessions or intuitive insights.  Compared to photosynthesis, extraction seems easy until one considers the power of the hydrogen and oxygen bond.  The MIT team deserves considerable admiration for a solution to the most difficult matter of artificial photosynthesis – the building of the nanoscale components that control the electron transfers.

The question then begging is how good does the MIT process have to get for commercial use or trying to get to scale?  The competition, solar photovoltaic is coming down in price, and relies on well-known electrolysis for the process function. That means the MIT virus built process is going to need to be very efficient balanced against the capital cost and operational expenses.  The team isn’t discussing the lifetime of a virus built wire and the materials used, and the cost of building with alternative materials can’t be known yet.

By any measure, the Belcher team has made a wondrous breakthrough.  Recombine the hydrogen’s proton and electron, gather some CO², then make methanol and the world would have an inexhaustible fuel supply.


14 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on April 20, 2010 5:32 AM

    What happens if the self sustaining viral water splitter gets loose and multiplies?

    Would it start splitting water we want to keep?

  2. Energy Storage Science Applied on May 3, 2010 5:38 AM

    […] Hydrogen Production From the Smallest Living Organisms […]

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  5. thisis notacually myname on May 1, 2011 10:15 PM

    Following up Matt’s general idea:
    it says that it is a “common, harmless bacterial virus”. But what if as Matt’s situation humans were exposed to this virus and as humans are over 70% water i think this could be potentialy lethal. 0_0

    just a though

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