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.