IU Researchers Create Hydrogen Biofuels

Joanna Schroeder

Indiana University researchers have developed a highly efficient biomaterial that catalyzes the formation of hydrogen by splitting H2O and creating hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting fuel can be used to power vehicles that essentially run on water. According to the research team, a modified enzyme gains strength from being protected within the protein shell — or “capsid” — of a bacterial virus. This new material, called hydrogenase, is 150 times more efficient than the unaltered form of the enzyme. The process of creating the material was recently reported in “Self-assembling biomolecular catalysts for hydrogen production,” in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Trevor Douglas MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Trevor Douglas: MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

“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,” explained research lead Trevor Douglas, the Earl Blough Professor of Chemistry in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry. “The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen.”

The biomaterial created through the process, known as P22-Hyd, is produced through a simple fermentation process at room temperature and is more efficient than the unaltered enzyme. In addition, the biomaterial is potentially less expensive and more sustainable to produce than materials, such as platinum, currently being used to create fuel cells.

“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.”

An artist's rendering of P22-Hyd, a new biomaterial created by encapsulating a hydrogen-producing enzyme within a virus shell. PHOTO BY TREVOR DOUGLAS

An artist’s rendering of P22-Hyd, a new biomaterial created by encapsulating a hydrogen-producing enzyme within a virus shell. PHOTO BY TREVOR DOUGLAS

In addition, P22-Hyd both breaks the chemical bonds of water to create hydrogen and also works in reverse to recombine hydrogen and oxygen to generate power. “The reaction runs both ways — it can be used either as a hydrogen production catalyst or as a fuel cell catalyst,” Douglas said.

Douglas notes that no one has ever had a means to create a large enough amount of hydrogenase despite it’s potential for biofuel production. “But now we’ve got a method to stabilize and produce high quantities of the material — and enormous increases in efficiency,” he said.

Beyond the new study, Douglas and his colleagues continue to craft P22-Hyd into an ideal ingredient for hydrogen power by investigating ways to activate a catalytic reaction with sunlight, as opposed to introducing elections using laboratory methods. They are also planning on incorporating the material into a solar-powered system.

advanced biofuels, Hydrogen, Research