Bio Hydrogen production breakthrough - Understanding the power of enzymes

December 11 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: 2018   Rating: 2


 - Editor's Note -
We cannot ignore, or dismiss hydrogen energy storage

Let's put Hydrogen (e.g. energy storage for electricity) into perspective.  Hydrogen was all the hype in the late 90s as Techies rallied behind Ballard Fuel Cell stocks, and buying into the 'hype'.  Then as hydrogen startups failed to live up to short term expectations, many of those same people started slamming hydrogen as a waste of time and resources.  Too 'inefficient and wasteful - and hard to store.'  Early believers had wanted startups to change the world, but really they needed to pay attention to science. Researchers were waving their hands- 'we're not ready yet!'

The hydrogen skeptics' new strategy?
Replace the hype of hydrogen, with hype of lithium ion batteries and capacitors. That's the 'new answer'.  Meanwhile hydrogen researchers continue to evolve systems for low cost, high efficiency production, and solid-state storage. 

My forecast?  Batteries will disappoints us, hydrogen will surprise us.

What happened?
Nanowerk is reporting that researchers at the University of Oxford have advanced a technique that taps the of biology.  Enzymes known as hydrogenase can be used as a cheap, clean and efficient way of producing hydrogen from water using sunlight (artificial photosynthesis).

Hydrogenases are biocatalysts that produce or oxidize hydrogen using clusters of iron ([FeFe]) or nickel and iron ([NiFe]) to facilitate reactions.  Enyzmes transport electrons and positively charged molecules through complex chains that are largely unknown to scientists.  Now we are trying to overcome challenges of tapping the power of hydrogenase (H2 enyzmes) like keeping oxygen from stopping or slowing down reactions. 

Nanowerk reports that Armstrong's group has 'demonstrated a rational photochemical hydrogen cell that produces hydrogen under visible light irradiation without resort to rigorous anaerobicity.'

Why is this important to the future of energy? 

Our world is powered by the breaking of chemical bonds- mostly from hydrocarbons sources like coal, oil and natural gas.  There is no better way to store energy than a chemical bond.  A 'hydrogen' storage system eliminates the carbon from the mixture - leading to cleaner storage systems.

We need low cost ways of storing electricity.  Batteries suffer from bad chemistry and it's unlikely that they will (in the long term) be able to compete against the cost and performance advantages of fuel cells.

Nature stores energy in the form of chemical bonds? 

Why not humans?

Nature uses enyzmes to convert and storage energy?

Why not humans?

First, we need to be clear about the myths of a hydrogen future. The world is powered by electricity - hydrogen is simply a chemical storage strategy.

A 'Hydrogen Economy' is an economy driven by electricity. 

A 'Hydrogen' car is an electric vehicle that uses hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity.

Looking ahead to 2018

We should watch our tendency to 'overestimate' the short term hype of technologies, and (even worse) 'underestimate' the long term potential of disruptive systems that enable new platforms for growth in performance.

Hydrogen is not a waste of time.  It is just a victim of hype and short-term expectations. 

My forecast?

Batteries will disappoint us. 

Hydrogen is going to surprise us. 

Keep your eye on solid state hydrogen storage. And nanoscale catalysts and materials that change the game of production! 

And keep reading The Energy!


via Nanowerk (awesome site!!)

Armstrong Research Group

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India develops cheaper fuel cell membrane (100x lower cost)
Fuel cells & The Future of Infrastructure: India partners with IdaTech and Ballard
Surface images of nanoparticles could advance energy systems
DuPont team wins US Military Wearable Power Prize
Reliable Fuel Cells Powering Remote Traffic Systems

Small, Mobile, Fuel-Cell Powered, but no cars yet!
Research breakthrough in microbial fuel cell converts waste to energy
Self-assembled metal nanostructures improve fuel cell performance
What powers the car of tomorrow? Batteries or Hydrogen fuel cells? [Hint: Both]

Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. Actually Garry, I think you’ll find that simply re-working current IC engine designs to burn a hydrogen/air mixture instead of an aerosolized liquid hydrocarbon/air mixture will be a much more cost efficient as well as easily adopted alternative to fuel cells and/or batteries as primary motive source for private transportation vehicles. I don’t disagree that fuel cells will eventually develop their own niche market, I simply think the ICE is a too well developed and established technology to be radically supplanted given it’s demonstrated adaptability and reliability/maintainability protocols throughout established human civilisation.

    In either eventuality, you are correct that the hold-up is from the “manufacture”/distribution of the hydrogen “fuel” along with the individual vehicle re-fueling technology. Once those become more tractable, my own money is on some variation of hydrogen-boosted bio-fuel combination being adapted to ICE vehicles that exceeds 100 mpg in a 2 to 3 ton motor vehicle without need for further advancement of transmission technology. Admit it, a Cadillac Escalade (or whatever equivilant we can all hope to afford :)) that averages in excess of 100 mpg would likely be “green enough” for the vast majority of the non-Ed Begleys of the world.

    Posted by: Will   December 12, 2008
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  2. Will I won’t argue against changing the fuel mixture in a combustion engine to improve performance or eco side. But I think that misses the point of what’s the future of the auto industry – not the combustion engine. What holds them back is design and a manufacturing platform that requires too many factories and a ‘build, ship, sit on lot, wait for customer’ sales model.

    You can only get so lean with building cars that require bulky mechanical engine parts…You’ll see me say over again- ‘the problem is the engine, not the fuel’. (And yes, I think we do have a liquid fuels problem, but that’s another story!)

    I don’t see anyone within the auto industry involved in long term R&D saying we still want to have 1/3rd of the car taken up by a combustion engine. Or that they still want to have multiple factories operating at below 80% capacity utilization. It’s like the computer industry choosing between the glass tubes or silicon chip. It’s a platform question, not energy source.

    My forecast has always been that the real benefit of electric drive platform is modularity. Wheel based electric motors- batteries, fuel cells and capacitors can change the way cars are built. Again, the ‘skateboard’ model (previous posts) changes the whole value chain.

    So - yes, the hydrogen mixture argument is strong if you want to preserve the combustion engine- but I don’t see why they’d want to.

    We’re definitely looking at a long transition and I expect it’ll be 2030 before car industry is fundamentally different. So I think you’re idea could see some applications - but my long term bet is not on improving the buggy whip.

    Thanks Will—always great insights!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   December 14, 2008
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