Scientists at a US university have created a highly efficient biomaterial that catalyses the formation of hydrogen — one half of the “holy grail” of splitting H2O to make hydrogen and oxygen for fuelling cheap and efficient cars that run on water.
“Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas,” said study author Trevor Douglas, the Earl Blough professor of chemistry at the Indiana University (IU).
“The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyses the production of hydrogen,” Douglas added.
The genetic material used to create the enzyme, hydrogenase, is produced by two genes from the common bacteria Escherichia coli, inserted inside the protective capsid using methods previously developed by these IU scientists.
The genes, hyaA and hyaB, are two genes in E. coli that encode key subunits of the hydrogenase enzyme. The capsid comes from the bacterial virus known as bacteriophage P22.
The resulting biomaterial, called “P22-Hyd,” is not only more efficient than the unaltered enzyme but also is produced through a simple fermentation process at room temperature.
The material is potentially far less expensive and more environmentally friendly to produce than other materials currently used to create fuel cells.
The costly and rare metal platinum, for example, is commonly used to catalyze hydrogen as fuel in products such as high-end concept cars.
“This material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable,” Douglas said.
“You don’t need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it’s biodegradable. It’s a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material,” he added.
Other IU scientists who contributed to the research were Megan C. Thielges, an assistant professor of chemistry; Ethan J. Edwards, a Ph.D. student; and Paul C. Jordan, a postdoctoral researcher at Alios BioPharma, who was an IU Ph.D. student at the time of the study.
The process of creating the material was recently reported in the journal Nature Chemistry.