Solar energy solution buried in the mud

EMORY (US)—Microscopic bugs that live deep in swamp mud and survive by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen may hold the key to harnessing solar hydrogen production to produce green energy.

While humans need to use expensive systems to perform this process on a large scale, the bacteria does it naturally by generating the protein hydrogenase, explains Brian Dyer, chemistry professor at Emory University. Hydrogenase is the most efficient catalyst known for making hydrogen.

By studying the biological system, Dyer says he hopes to find ways to adapt the process so that it can be harnessed for solar hydrogen production.

“You can trick bugs to make lots of certain kinds of proteins, like a little factory,” Dyer explains. “It’s called ‘directed evolution,’ where you push bacteria a certain way, forcing it to adapt and to produce an evolved protein that has the properties you need.”

Dyer believes that the process may go a long way toward solving the problem of storing solar energy. His goal is to generate hydrogenase in a form that allows the protein to bind to quantum dots, which are good at absorbing light and could provide the energy to drive the reaction.

“We envision producing hydrogen in a photochemically driven process, where the electrons and protons needed to produce the hydrogen are furnished by water,” Dyer explains.

“You could then burn the hydrogen as fuel and get water back. It would be a perfectly clean cycle.”

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