Intelligent Energy

Can viruses help make hydrogen fuel?

Can viruses help make hydrogen fuel?

Posting in Design

MIT researches create a virus that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. Will this bug help smooth out bugs in energy storage and hydrogen production?

A virus may help lead to a cure for two energy ills: solar power storage and cheaper, cleaner hydrogen fuel production.

MIT researchers engineered a harmless bacterial virus to mimic the way photosynthesis splits water into oxygen and hydrogen. Extracting hydrogen from water using sunlight would allow energy from the sun to be stored as hydrogen, for use later via a fuel cell—not just when the sun is shining. The viral-spawned hydrogen fuel might also be used to power automobiles.

In plants, pigments absorb sunlight, and catalysts trigger the reactions that split H2O molecules. In the MIT lab, the virus, called M13, attracts and binds to a pigment, zinc porphyrins, and a catalyst, iridium oxide. The pigments catch the sunlight and transport the energy down the virus as if it were a wire.

The M13 virus serves as a type of scaffolding, spacing the pigment and catalysts in such a way that allows the water-splitting reaction to occur.

To prevent the viruses from clumping together or losing their working shape, Professor Angela Belcher (right) and her team encapsulated them in a microgel matrix.

As of now, the resulting hydrogen atoms separate into their component protons and electrons, but the researchers are developing a new step that would re-assemble them into hydrogen atoms and molecules.

Penn State University's Professor Thomas Mallouk in a statement:

There is a daunting combination of problems to be solved before this or any other artificial photosynthetic system could actually be useful for energy conversion. This is unlikely to happen in the near future. Nevertheless, the design idea illustrated in this paper could ultimately help with an important piece of the puzzle.

Mallouk explains that for the virus system to compete with existing solar power strategies, it would need to perform better than plant photosynthesis—at least 10 times more efficiently. Such a system would also have to carry out the reactions a billion times and do so more cheaply than currently in the lab.

The MIT team is already looking to replace the expensive and somewhat rare iridium as a catalyst. In two years, Belcher hopes to have a prototype for the viral system that is durable and self-sustaining.

Image 1: Flickr/der_makabere
Image 2: Dominick Reuter

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure