IU scientists develop biomaterial for fuel cells



From IDS Reports

In a research study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, IU scientists have developed a biomaterial for use in technology used to fuel cheap and efficient water-powered cars.

The scientists’ process creating the biomaterial, a modified enzyme 150 times more efficient than the enzyme’s unaltered form, was recently reported on in the science journal Nature Chemistry, according to an IU press release.

The modified enzyme created catalyzes the formation of hydrogen, which makes up half of the process of splitting H20 to make hydrogen and oxygen used for hydroelectric purposes.

The team of IU scientists – including assistant professor of chemistry Megan Thielges, doctoral student Ethan Edwards and postdoctoral researcher Paul Jordan – used genetic material from the common E. coli bacteria to encode subunits of the existing enzyme to create their resulting biomaterial, called “P22-Hyd,” according to the release.

P22-Hyd is not only more efficient than the unaltered enzyme, according to the press release, but can also be produced at room temperature through a simple fermentation process, allowing for a less expensive and more environmentally friendly option than materials currently used in fuel cell production.

“The material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable,” Douglas said in the release. “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.”

Nickel-iron-hydrogenase used in the biomaterial produced is one of three naturally occurring materials selected because of its ability to tolerate exposure to oxygen and resist breakdown to other chemicals in the environment.

When unaltered, the nickel-iron-hydrogenase is typically a poor choice for use in manufacturing and commercial projects like cars, according to the press release.

Douglas said sensitivities in the unaltered material are “some of the key reasons enzymes haven’t previously lived up to their promise in technology.”

The unaltered hydrogenase can also be difficult to produce.

“No one’s ever had a way to create a large enough amount of this hydrogenase despite its incredible potential for biofuel production,” Douglas said. “But now we’ve got a method to stabilize and produce quantities of the material – and enormous increases in efficiency.”

Seung-Wuk Lee, a professor of bioengineering at the university of California-Berkeley, said in the release the IU scientists’ development is highly significant.

“Douglas’ group has been leading protein- or virus-based nanomaterial development for the last two decades,” Lee said in the release. “This is a new pioneering work to produce green and clean fuels to tackle the real-world energy problem that we face today and make an immediate impact in our life in the near future.”

Douglas and the IU scientists are continuing to craft the P22-Hyd biomaterial into an ingredient that can react with sunlight. Douglas said the team’s next step will be incorporating this biomaterial into a solar powered system.

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