Bugs’ burps for efficient hydrogen production

6 September 2018

Bacteria that turn sugar into hydrogen are being engineered by Macquarie University researchers who received a $1.1 million grant from ARENA, the Australian government’s renewable energy agency.

“There’s global interest in using hydrogen gas to produce electricity in hydrogen fuel cells, for example to power vehicles, heat buildings or provide electricity for industry,” says Professor Robert Willows, who is one of the project leaders. “It’s a clean and efficient energy source.”

While 95 per cent of the hydrogen used worldwide currently is produced from fossil fuels, increasingly people are looking at how to produce hydrogen from renewables.

“A lot of recent research efforts are focused on using electrolysis to produce hydrogen by splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen,” says Dr Louise Brown, co-leader of the project. “They’re doing this by using electricity generated from solar and wind.”

“Other people are taking a biological route, and tweaking photosynthesis in algae to produce hydrogen.”

“We think we can use genetically engineered bacteria—in our case E. coli—which will be able to eat glucose produced from renewable sources likes sugar cane and cereals,” says Louise. “We’ll also be looking at other low-cost carbohydrate feedstocks as well.”

“The aim of our project is to design a system that produces hydrogen relatively rapidly and at yields that are commercially viable,” says Robert. “The bacterial approach has many advantages over hydrogen from algae, including that it doesn’t need large open ponds.”

The team is planning to scale up from their current, small lab set-up. This will allow them to test the safety and efficacy of their process as they work towards commercialising the technology.

“Even in the lab we can produce enough hydrogen in a day from a few spoonfuls of sugar, to produce enough energy to charge your mobile phone for up to two weeks,” says Louise.

The researchers from Macquarie’s Department of Molecular Sciences, have teamed up with BOC Australia and Bioplatforms Australia on the project.

The three-year grant from ARENA is being matched by an additional $1.7 million in further funding and in-kind support for the research.

“BOC is committed to supporting Australian research and development into the production and use of cleaner gaseous fuels for mobility and energy. Renewable hydrogen is a fuel of the future, and we are proud to share our global expertise with researchers from Macquarie University as they enter this next phase of technology development,” says Alex Dronoff, BOC General Manager Hydrogen and LNG.

“The team will be able to use our research infrastructure to better understand the changes they’re making to the genes, proteins and metabolism of the bacteria they’re engineering,” says Andrew Gilbert, general manager of Bioplatforms Australia. “We are delighted to support this valuable project that showcases clever science to innovatively produce hydrogen.”

“As the economy decarbonises, alternative clean and carbon neutral sources of energy, like hydrogen, will be essential,” says Professor Barbara Messerle, the Executive Dean of Science and Engineering at Macquarie University. “The project takes an innovative approach to how we might sustainably and efficiently produce the hydrogen to both meet our future power needs and potentially export abroad.”

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