MIT scientists led by the prolific Angela Belcher have developed a system that mimics the oxidation of oxygen of the photosynthetic process in plants by engineering M13, a simple and harmless virus, to help splitting water into its two atomic components freeing hydrogen and oxygen powered by sunlight.

Virus Developed Into Wire Shape for Splitting Water. Click Image for more info.

The MIT team hopes this is the first step toward using sunlight to create hydrogen reserves that could then be used to generate electricity or produce liquid fuels for portable use.

The team decided to engineer a bacterial virus called M13 so that it became wire shaped and could very efficiently split the oxygen from water molecules. Chlorophyll in a plant absorbs sunlight while catalysts promote the water-splitting reaction. The MIT approach that proved best was to mimic the processes that take place in plants, rather than simply borrowing their components and re-adapt them like others have tried before.

The structure seems key.  The virus performs the chlorophyll job by capturing light, and then transfers the energy down its length, like electricity going down a wire. The wire-like structure of the virus also allows the light-absorbing pigments and catalysts of the virus to line up with the right spacing to trigger the water-splitting reaction, drastically improving the system’s efficiency.

Observing, and not participating Professor of Materials Chemistry and Physics Thomas Mallouk, points out there are still problems to be solve before artificial photosynthetic systems like this could be useful for practical fuel production.  To be cost-competitive with other approaches to solar power, the new virus based system would need to be at least 10 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis, have an ability to repeat the reaction almost indefinitely, and be built from lower cost materials.

While solving the problems will take time, this latest apparatus from MIT is undoubtedly still a big step toward capturing sunlight and directly freeing hydrogen.

As the current design operates the hydrogen atoms from the water get split into their component protons and electrons.  A second part of the system is needed to combine the proton and electron back into a complete hydrogen atoms and then H² molecules so that hydrogen could be both produced and stored.  The team hopes to develop the extended design within the next two years.

MIT has been at this for some years now.  The new paper and the supplemental information is getting much more revealing – the team is getting a good handle on lab productivity, better harware engineering and virus designs.

From the abstract in Nature Nanotechnology:

Over several billion years, cyanobacteria and plants have evolved highly organized photosynthetic systems to shuttle both electronic and chemical species for the efficient oxidation of water. In a similar manner to reaction centres in natural photosystems, molecular and metal oxide3  catalysts have been used to photochemically oxidize water. However, the various approaches involving the molecular design of ligands, surface modification and immobilization, still have limitations in terms of catalytic efficiency and sustainability. Here, we demonstrate a biologically templated nanostructure for visible light-driven water oxidation that uses a genetically engineered M13 virus scaffold to mediate the co-assembly of zinc porphyrins (photosensitizer) and iridium oxide hydrosol clusters (catalyst). Porous polymer microgels are used as an immobilization matrix to improve the structural durability of the assembled nanostructures and to allow the materials to be recycled. Our results suggest that the biotemplated nanoscale assembly of functional components is a promising route to significantly improved photocatalytic water-splitting systems.

Mallouk’s points are on track, but the MIT team’s results are discovery – in very slow motion – with fundamental development building out working system design.  Its so new, so small, and uncharted territory that progress seems slow to us – when inside the lab it must seem astonishing.

Virus Based Water Splitter at MIT. Click image for more info.

From the outside looking in though it is quite amazing – s very simple seeming system pulls off the oxygen leaving the proton and electron free.  Umm, what could be done at that stage leaving out the recombining of the electron and proton?

Electricity.  Cool.


6 Comments so far

  1. russ on July 17, 2010 12:25 AM

    Trolling the MIT website again to see what is coming in the not too close future?

    These things may (or may not) be far more interesting after another 10 years of work.

    From the lab to industrial scale is typically far harder than what they have done so far.

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  4. physical therapist on August 22, 2010 3:02 PM

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  5. Exercise Balls on August 22, 2010 3:38 PM

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  6. Bob Conner on October 31, 2011 6:23 PM

    There are many hho generator manufacturers that obviously have sold thousands of units, anyone buy one recently and try it on a newer vehicle?

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