College Station (TX) - Hydrogen carries the potential to become a clean energy source in the future. But while hydrogen does not produce green house gases in cars, an enormous amount of energy is required to produce it. E.Coli bacteria may change that and enable you to create your own hydrogen supply right in your backyard, if researchers from A&M University are right.
In recent months, we have seen hundreds of research projects focusing on clean energy sources popping up around the world. They all promise to reduce our dependency on oil and reduce our impact on global warming. At the same time, they usually have downsides. They all are still years out from a commercial viability and, in the case of hydrogen-related projects, there is always the problem of the green house gas emissions that are caused by hydrogen production. A&M's researchers now believe to be able to solve the hydrogen manufacturing problem.
The team around Thomas Wood, a professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering of the A&M University, has discovered a rather unusual source of hydrogen production capability. The scientists found that a tweaked strain of E.Coli bacteria, which are commonly known as being connected to food poisoning, can be an effective producer of hydrogen. Removing six specific genes from the bacteria's 5000 genes makes E.Coli virtually harmless and transforms it to a "mini hydrogen-producing factory." Wood said that such a "factory" would be powered by sugar, as E.Coli produce hydrogen from sugar through a fermentative process.
"One of the most difficult things about chemical engineering is how you get the product," Wood explained. "In this case, it's very easy because the hydrogen is a gas, and it just bubbles out of the solution. You just catch the gas as it comes out of the glass. That's it. You have pure hydrogen."
If Wood's concept proves to be right and the gas can be collected right from this "glass", then the construction of expensive pipelines to transport hydrogen could be unnecessary. Instead, hydrogen could be produced onsite, wherever it is needed.
"The main thing we think is you can transport things like sugar, and if you spill the sugar there is not a huge catastrophe," Wood said. "The idea is to make the hydrogen where you need it."
The availability of this technology on a mass-production scale remains a problem, as the technology is years out from becoming available on a commercial basis. But Wood claims that he is working on refining a process that has already hinted at more potential. The goal, he said, is to continue to get more out of less.
"Take your house, for example," Wood said. "The size of the reactor that we'd need today if we implemented this technology would be less than the size of a 250-gallon fuel tank found in the typical east-coast home. I'm not finished with this yet, but at this point if we implemented the technology right now, you or a machine would have to shovel in about the weight of a man every day so that the reactor could provide enough hydrogen to take care of the average American home for a 24-hour period."