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.
DOE 2005 Annual Merit Review: Hydrogen Production and Delivery