New process could lead to production of hydrogen using bioengineered microorganisms. Many kinds of algae and cyanobacteria, common water-dwelling microorganisms, are capable of using energy from sunlight to split water molecules and release hydrogen, which holds promise as a clean and carbon-free fuel for the future.
One reason this approach hasn’t yet been harnessed for fuel production is that under ordinary circumstances, hydrogen production takes a back seat to the production of compounds that the organisms use to support their own growth.
But Shuguang Zhang, associate director of MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, and postdocs Iftach Yacoby and Sergii Pochekailov, together with colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, have found a way to use bioengineered proteins to flip this preference, allowing more hydrogen to be produced.
“The algae are really not interested in producing hydrogen, they want to produce sugar,” Yacoby says — the sugar is what they need for their own survival, and the hydrogen is just a byproduct. But a multitasking enzyme, introduced into the liquid where the algae are at work, both suppresses the sugar production and redirects the organisms’ energies into hydrogen production. The work is described in a paper being published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was supported in part by a European Molecular Biology Organization postdoctoral fellowship, the Yang Trust Fund and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Adding the bioengineered enzyme increases the rate of algal hydrogen production by about 400 percent, Yacoby says. The sugar production is suppressed but not eliminated, he explains, because “if it went to zero, it would kill the organism.”
The research demonstrates for the first time how the two processes carried out by algae compete with each other; it also shows how that competition could be modified to favor hydrogen production in a laboratory environment. Zhang and Yacoby plan to continue developing the system to increase its efficiency of hydrogen production.
“It’s one step closer to an industrial process,” Zhang says. “First, you have to understand the science” — which has been achieved through this experimental work. Now, developing it further — through refinements to produce a viable commercial system for hydrogen-fuel manufacturing — is “a matter of time and money,” Zhang says.
Ultimately, such a system could be used to produce hydrogen on a large scale using water and sunlight. The hydrogen could be used directly to generate electricity in a fuel cell or to power a vehicle, or could be combined with carbon dioxide to make methane or other fuels in a renewable, carbon-neutral way, the researchers say.
In the long run, “the only viable way to produce renewable energy is to use the sun, [either] to make electricity or in a biochemical reaction to produce hydrogen,” Yacoby says. “I believe there is no one solution,” he adds, but rather many different approaches depending on the location and the end uses.
This particular approach, he says, is simple enough that it has promise “not just in industrialized countries, but in developing countries as well” as a source of inexpensive fuel. The algae needed for the process exist everywhere on Earth, and there are no toxic materials involved in any part of the process, he says.
“The beauty is in its simplicity,” he says.
A chemist based with the United States Department of Agriculture gave algae-based biofuels a failing grade recently when he reviewed the oil as an energy source, reported SciDevnet.
“… 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 to power our cars, trucks, jets, ships, and tractors…”
The US Department of Energy outlines the draft algae biofuel strategy in a document titled National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap. SciDevnet recently learned of a review of algae-based biofuels by Gerhard Knothe. Knothe, a chemist with the USDA, and a recognized expert in the field of biofuels, learned incidentally that biofuels do not perform well in automobiles, warning that too much money and energy is being spent on developing a fuel that may not actually be feasible. His findings are reported in a research paper called Algae for Biofuels and Energy. Described as the “fuel of the future,” the production of algae-derived biodiesel has had a number of problems. The promise, however, has been so alluring that many companies have been established in the hopes of being the first to create a viable fuel from algae. The biodiesel created from algae is supposed to be compatible to current diesel systems. Test flights in 2009 using a blend of algae-biodiesel mixed with petroleum jet fuel and plant biodiesel were deemed successful, reported the Scientific American. One of the enticements of the algae is its simplicity, renew-ability and environmentally-friendly aspects. All algae needs to grow is water, sunshine and air. Developments by Australia’s Aurora Biofuels show that production of biodiesel from algae has a low environmental impact. Knothe said there was a previously undescribed problem with algae biofuels — the inability of the fuel to perform in cold temperatures, as well as a tendency to break down a little too quickly. Knothe told SciDevnet that some genetic tinkering with the algae might solve those problems, but his prognosis was that algae as an alternative fuel source was many years away from being market-ready. A quick scan of the industry shows that Knothe has definitely found a sore point. While there are around 200 companies vying to be the first to develop a fuel from algae, as PBS reported, there is very little evidence that the companies are researching the capabilities of their end product – the biodiesel for cars, trucks, jets and all the other vehicles that use petroleum-based fuels. There has to be some research underway, after all, there are algae biodiesel companies teaming up with other agencies to develop viable fuels, for example, Solena and British Airways. But whatever knowledge about the performance of the biofuels might exist, it is being held close to the vest by those in the industry. This might be a result of the competitiveness of the industry, or simply a failure of the industry to look past solving the current problems presented by the production of algae-based biofuels. No one algae-derived biodiesel is the same. Every company has its own blend of algaes, it’s own special way of growing the algae on top of having one of at least three ways to extract the oil from the algae. But only one company has had its biodiesel approved for use by consumers in the United States. The Chevron-backed Solazyme, which has a contract with the US Navy to supply green jet fuel, created SoladieselRDTM, which was approved for use in vehicles in 2008. However, it is not commercially available, and Solazyme has only conducted limited tests the fuel in vehicles, not publishing the results. The Navy is testing out the algae-derived fuel, reported blogger Elisa Wood. The lack of attention paid to the actual performance of biodiesel has been pointed out in the past, as an article written for How Stuff Works in 2007 demonstrates. Which leaves the public wondering what is going on with the ‘fuel of the future.’ Some answers may be provided at the 7th annual World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing when
“Executives from companies commercializing algae technology will discuss the status of the industry, market acceptance, and the need for government policy…”
In the meanwhile, the industry appears to be concentrating on bringing down the high costs of production of the fuel, which is said to be around $33 per gallon, according to GreenTechMedia.
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