PORTLAND, Ore.—Algae can produce hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight, with a little boost from man-made nanoparticle catalysts, according to engineers at the U.S.Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. By commandeering the photosynthesis mechanisms that enable algae to harness the energy of the sun, algae can produce abundant fuel to power an emerging hydrogen economy, they say.
Led by Argonne National Lab chemist Lisa Utschig, working with colleague David Tiede, the team at Argonne's Photosynthesis Group recently demonstrated how its platinum nanoparticles can be linked to key proteins in algae to coax them into producing hydrogen fuel five times more efficiently that the previous world's record, Utschig said.
Photosynthesis usually produces a natural fuel for plants like adenosine triphosphate, which can be stored until it is needed for growth or respiration. But by modifying the cycle with nanoparticle catalysts, the Argonne National Lab team hopes to repurpose algae by allowing them to produce hydrogen fuel for storage and eventual use in fuel cells to produce electricity.
Chemist Lisa Utschig tests a container of photosynthetic proteins linked with platinum nanoparticles, which can produce hydrogen from sunlight. Tiny bubbles of hydrogen are visible in the container at right.
For 50 years, Argonne's Photosynthesis Group has been aiming to reverse-engineer photosynthesis. Its current efforts are concentrating on the algae protein plastocyanin, which forms the foundation of its primary photosynthesis mechanism (photo-system-one, or PS1). When light likes PS1, it knocks out an electron, leaving behind a hole that the team wanted to use to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. By adding the platinum nanoparticle catalysts to the PS1 mechanism, the team succeeded in producing abundant hydrogen gas.
Next, the Argonne researchers are trying less expensive metals for its nanoparticles, in order to lower the cost of making them, thereby potentially creating a systems cheap enough to produce hydrogen from water and sunlight on an industrial scale.
The current problem is so severe that an alternative fuel will help. The potential issues coming from Algae generated hydrogen fuel may be just 1 among all. The storage of hydrogen fuel is very important that we can't ignore. We don't want to see a hydrogen bomb ignition whenever there is a car accident somewhere.
We may end up in a "the devil you know..." situation.
Petroleum is ultimately limited and takes long stored carbon and puts it in the air. Hydro hard fish runs. Wind harms bird migration and may do other things we haven't discovered yet. I'm sure there are some unintended consequences with tide based generation. Nuclear, is, well.. nuclear. Hydrogen today is largely produced from fossil fuels. Algae-based hydrogen production may cause an invasive species invasion like none before it. Ethanol may lead to the decimation of food staples.
Okay, maybe we'll end up in a "the devil we know isn't workable and neither are any of the devils we don't know."
Energy production using algae without the need for exotic materials should be feasible - after all, the algae seem to be managing the process for themselves without importing special materials. It certainly is necessary to ensure that the energy production is contained and does not adversely impact natural habitats. Maybe as a bonus, the "energy farms" will be able to produce food with their excess biomass.
If only I knew :-) Hydrogen fuel cells are promising but we have to find a cheap way of mass producing hydrogen. Solar is great but the economics are still stuck up against it despite what we hear from its protagonists. Ethanol has zero-carbon advantage but if harnessed at a mass scale, food shortages would occur. Nuclear has major security concerns. Wind and wave energy sources are not available everywhere. Perhaps we need a mix of these technologies at least for the forseeable future.