Thinking Tech

Viral scaffolds for making hydrogen from water

Posting in Science

MIT has taken the process of photosynthesis apart and shown a better way to separate water into its component parts.

Any high school student knows how to make hydrogen from water. Two electrodes.

But electrolysis has a problem. It takes electricity.

A solar or wind installation could turn excess power into hydrogen, but the electrical and transportation costs of this are daunting. An aluminum alloy makes this more efficient, but maybe that's just less inefficient.

Photooxidation is another potential method. Skip the electrical middle man -- go straight from sunlight to hydrogen. And catalysts improve the reaction. Work on this is ongoing.

But there's another way forward. Do what plants do.

(Picture by Dominick Reuter for MIT Press.)

MIT has taken the process of photosynthesis apart and shown a better way to separate water into its component parts.

Yung Num Sam (the blue coat in the picture), a Korean doctoral candidate in bioengineering working under MacArthur fellow Prof. Angela Belcher (center), has a new paper out describing how a genetically-engineered virus became a scaffold for the water-into-hydrogen reaction.

The Belcher Lab is highly interdisciplinary, with bio-engineers, chemical engineers, and even a civil engineer on staff, plus several post-docs. Belcher's own work starts from creating viruses that stick to silicon substrates. (Belcher's personal story is also inspiring, as seen in this cartoon-like presentation from UC Berkeley.)

With zinc porphyrin as pigments, the new MIT structure runs sunlight down the line of the virus, then iridium oxide catalysts help split water into its component parts.

The next step is to find a biologic process for collecting the hydrogen -- right now the procedure is just creating protons and electrons. But it's highly efficient and stable.

Belcher thinks she's two years away from a reliable, replicable, structure that engineers can take to a factory.

But organizing the work of a biological factory that performs electrolysis is a big deal. It's a bit like building the assembly line before you have a car coming out of it, but it's a huge step in the right direction.

Inside this decade we'll be turning sunlight directly into hydrogen.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure