Hydrogen-Producing Bacteria Provide Clean Energy

Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and North Carolina State University (NC State) have developed cooperatively a new “green” technology which could lead to clean production of hydrogen from nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

 Thermotoga maritima (green/yellow rods) growing in co-culture with Methanococcus jannaschii (red spheres). T. maritima ferments sugars to hydrogen and M. jannaschii converts hydrogen to methane. (Credit:North Carolina State University)
Thermotoga maritima (green/yellow rods)
growing in co-culture with Methanococcus
jannaschii (red spheres). T. maritima ferments
sugars to hydrogen and M. jannaschii
converts hydrogen to methane
(Credit: North Carolina State University)

In order to solve global energy shortages, renewable sources of energy — such as hydrogen — that don’t produce pollutants or greenhouse gases are needed. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are considered nonrenewable energy sources and have been accused of causing global warmingdue to their emissions of carbon dioxide. 

The two research teams from ARS and NC State developed a novel way to identify strains of agricultural bacteria that produce hydrogen gas. Using a selecting agent to grow only these bacteria, the teams identified a gene that inactivates the bacteria’s hydrogen uptake system so that all of the hydrogen produced is released. Because the bacterial cells cannot recycle the hydrogen, the hydrogen they produce can be captured and used as a fuel whose byproduct is water and heat.

If successful, the invention holds the promise of hydrogen as a source for use in fuel cell technology. Fuel cell energy works by combining hydrogen and oxygen in order to produce electricity and water, which are considered more efficient, quiet, and pollution-free in comparison with other power sources. Currently, one of the biggest problems of what has become known as the future “hydrogen economy” is the cost of producing hydrogen – which currently requires large amounts of electricity produced either from polluting coal/oil/gas power plants or expensive solar/wind power plants. The new biological method for producing hydrogen could cut costs considerably and potentially solve another problem with hydrogen – transporting it. There is currently a huge hurdle in transporting and storing the fuel, as well as building a distribution network as far-reaching as today’s system of gas stations. If the new process will indeed be cheaper and simple enough to replace today’s huge gas and coal centralized production facilities it might be possible to distribute the production of hydrogen into many smaller facilities closer to gas stations or possibly in the gas stations themselves, although this could still be a long way down the line. 

TFOT recently reported on a different new way for creating hydrogen developed by researchers from MIT. The method is rooted in a new catalyst material, based on cobalt phosphate rather than expensive metals like platinum, which can be used for hydrolysis in water. TFOT also reported on a new electrically-generated fuel cell developed by scientists from Monash University. 

More about the new hydrogen-producing bacteria can be found on the North Carolina University website.