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DOE Awards $900,000 to Oregon State University Biohydrogen Researchers

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a $900,000 grant over three years to researchers in Oregon State University’s Department of Bioengineering.

OSU professors Roger Ely and Frank Chaplen are exploring the hydrogen-generating potential of cyanobacteria—the photosynthetic microorganisms also known as blue-green algae. Under certain conditions, the cyanobacteria will produce hydrogen rather than sugars.

The presence of oxygen, however, halts the production of hydrogen. (Earlier post on the oxygen-hydrogenase mechanism.)

With the grant, Ely and Chaplen hope to develop oxygen-tolerant strains of cyanobacteria that can produce hydrogen continuously. After developing sun-harnessing, hydrogen-producing strains, the plan is to grow them by the millions in systems that could also store the generated hydrogen and, using fuel cells, convert it into electricity on demand. They call these proposed systems “solar biohydrogen energy systems.”

The process will have one input, sunlight, and two outputs, electricity and heat. It will be safe, will operate at relatively low temperatures, and could be made in a range of sizes—from home to industry scale—from abundant, inexpensive materials, mostly from carbon and silica.

I want to make oil obsolete. As I like to say, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks. We can do better.

—Roger Ely

There are numerous research projects underway tackling this particular approach to biohydrogen production (modifying hydrogenase-using organisms to support the product of hydrogen in the presence of oxygen). Some brought forward during the Department of Energy’s 2005 Annual Merit Review and Peer Evaluation earlier this year include:

  • Maximizing Photosynthetic Efficiencies and Hydrogen Production in Microalgal Cultures; University of California, Berkeley

  • Biological Systems for Hydrogen Photoproduction; National Renewable Energy Laboratory

  • Creation of Designer Alga for Efficient and Robust Production of Hydrogen; Oak Ridge National Laboratory

  • Hydrogen from Water in a Novel Recombinant Oxygen-Tolerant Cyanobacteria System; J. Craig Venter Inst.

  • Novel Two-Stage Process for Photobiological Hydrogen Production; Advanced Bionutrition Corp.




Looks like it would be more efficient to grow pond scum, filter it out of the pond, dry it in the sun, and burn it in a boiler. It would be GHG neutral and probably produce more heat and electricity.


Wasn't a Professor Melis out of California working on this exact process a few years ago? His company (Melis Energy) seems not to have a homepage anymore. What are these guys doing that's different from his work?


Yes, similar approach in that he was using algae, out of Berkeley, in conjunction with NREL. Professor Melis is still at Berkeley, and has been the co-leader of the DOE Photobiological Hydrogen Production Program starting in 2004. In fact, Melis was the leader of the first project in the Merit Review list above (Maximizing Photosynthetic Efficiencies ...)

There are a variety of different aspects to tackling the question of how to squeeze hydrogen out of algae, each of which will have different degrees of success, be leveraged by other processes, be scalable to greater or lesser degrees, and so on.

As I understand it, Melis and his team were focusing on maximizing the solar to hydrogen conversion efficiency in green algae under mass culture conditions. The Oregon team sounds like it is going to focus on improving the stability and functionality of the key enzyme reversible hydrogenase. Both objectives seem necessary for a functional, commercial-grade system.

Mark A

Is this similar to the idea broadcast last year on PBS's "Alan Aldas Scientific Frontiers"? If I remember right, smokestack emissions from a plant, combined with algae and sunlight produced hydrogen. The "seed" algae had to be changed, or collected, quite often if I remember right. But I dont remember if the presence of oxygen was a factor. Any similarities?


That was Green Fuel Technologies that was profiled. Very different. GFT has built bioreactors containing green algae that use the CO2 in flue gas to support the rapid growth of the algae stock, scrubbing the gas in the process.

GFT drains ("milks") the tubes everyday, collecting algae which are then dried (using the heat of the flue gas). The dried algae can then be processed in a variety of ways, to make biodiesel, for example, or gasified to generate hydrogen (biomass gasification), or even burned as a solid biomass additive to coal.

So the net from GFT is scrubbed flue gas and a supply of dried algal biomass that can then be processed in those other ways.

The Alda piece was a bit misleading, as it glossed rapidly over exactly how one would use the dried algae to generate hydrogen (via the gasification process), and ignored entirely the biodiesel potential. But hey, the show was on hydrogen. :-)

Merideth Carleton

Have you seen this before? It's a number guessing game: I guessed 62436, and it got it right! Pretty neat.

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