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Engineers repurpose algae to produce hydrogen fuel

Posted: 25 May 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:algae? hydrogen fuel? photosynthesis cycle?

Engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory have demonstrated algae's capability to produce hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight with help from nanoparticle catalysts. The lab team has determined that algae can utilize the photosynthesis mechanisms that enable it to harness the sun's energy, and as a result, produce the amount of fuel needed to sustain an emerging hydrogen economy.

Led by Argonne National Lab chemist Lisa Utschig, working with colleague David Tiede, the team at Argonne's Photosynthesis Group recently showed how its platinum nanoparticles can be linked to key proteins in algae to coax them into producing hydrogen fuel five times more efficiently than the previous world record, Utschig said.

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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.

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.

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 system cheap enough to produce hydrogen from water and sunlight on an industrial scale.

- R. Colin Johnson
??EE Times

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