Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have engineered a strain of pond scum that could, with further refinements, produce vast amounts of hydrogen through photosynthesis.
The work, led by plant physiologist Tasios Melis, is so far unpublished. But if it proves correct, it would mean a major breakthrough in using algae as an industrial factory, not only for hydrogen, but for a wide range of products, from biodiesel to cosmetics.
Melis got involved in this research when he and Michael Seibert, a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, figured out how to get hydrogen out of green algae by restricting sulfur from their diet. The plant cells flicked a long-dormant genetic switch to produce hydrogen instead of carbon dioxide. But the quantities of hydrogen they produced were nowhere near enough to scale up the process commercially and profitably.
“When we discovered the sulfur switch, we increased hydrogen production by a factor of 100,000,” says Seibert. “But to make it a commercial technology, we still had to increase the efficiency of the process by another factor of 100.”
Melis’ truncated antennae mutants are a big step in that direction. Now Seibert and others (including James Lee at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and J. Craig Venter at the Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland) are trying to adjust the hydrogen-producing pathway so that it can produce hydrogen 100 percent of the time.
Imagine that… a world in which our cars run on hydrogen, and the hydrogen is being massproduced practically for free.
I think we can all look forward to a world where our transportation is a whole lot cheaper than it is now.