Algae to fuel our cars?

Several teams of U.S. researchers are working on the idea of building algal farms to produce hydrogen for the fuel cells that will power our cars in a decade or two.

Several teams of U.S. researchers are working on the idea of building algal farms to produce hydrogen for the fuel cells that will power our cars in a decade or two. According to ScienCentral News, we generate today ten million tons of hydrogen. But by re-engineering algae at the molecular level, it would be feasible to generate ten times that amount, and without using any fossil fuels. In other words, all the cars in the U.S. could be powered by using only renewable energy resources, providing that cars under development come to market, and that an infrastructure for distributing hydrogen becomes available.

Here is one vision of our future, as seen by these scientists.

"We envision in the future algal farms producing hydrogen much in the same way that we have farms to produce our food," says Michael Seibert, a biologist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Working with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Seibert is trying to re-engineer algae at the molecular level to jack up hydrogen production [and for delivery.]
But first, his team has to jump a major hurdle. Like all plants, algae produce hydrogen along with oxygen when converting sunlight into energy during a process called photosynthesis. "Oxygen is an inhibitor of the enzyme hydrogenase," a protein that drives the chemical reaction in cells that allows them to start producing hydrogen, explains Seibert.

So he's working with his colleagues to better understand the protein behavior. And he's using simulations on supercomputers to help him.

Now, except if you're a scientist specialized in this research domain, I doubt that the following images will mean anything special to you. However, they illustrate once again how scientific research can create "artistic" work. You can see below the progress of evolution during a typical run is shown at generations 1, 10, 20 and 50. These images are compressed using a ratio of 16:1. "The first generation produced a more or less random wavelet that performs poorly. Over the next generations, both image quality and the smoothness of the wavelets increase sharply. (Credit: University of Texas at Austin).

Below are "sample trajectories of molecular diffusion of a thousand simultaneous and mutually invisible copies of di-oxygen (O2) from the active site of CpI hydrogenase. You can see in (a) a superposition of all the O2 positions over the 2.3 ns trajectory and snapshots of the O2 trajectories after (b) 20 ps and (c) 2.3 ns. Figures were made using VMD (visual molecular dynamics)" (Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

Oxygen Diffusion (superposition over 2.3 ns)

Oxygen Diffusion (position after 20 ps)

Oxygen Diffusion (position after 2.3 ns)

This research work has been published in Biochemical Society Transactions under the name "Molecular dynamics and experimental investigation of H2 and O2 diffusion in [Fe]-hydrogenase" (Volume 33, part 1, pages 80-82, February 2005).

Here are two links to the abstract and to the full paper (PDF format, 3 pages, 296 KB). The images above were extracted from this paper.

Not only these scientists can produce artful images, they're also pretty imaginative.

Seibert says we'll have enough hydrogen to power our light vehicle fleet, about 236 million passenger vehicles, assuming we drive fuel cell cars that run on hydrogen — they're already in development. Special bioreactors with rooftops that allow sun to enter would span 10,000 square miles, a space the size of Massachusetts, most likely in the desert southwest where light is plentiful.

Is this feasible? I don't know, but it seems to me that this kind of farms could be built almost everywhere on Earth. This could be good news for all of us.

Sources: Stacey Young, ScienCentral News, September 2, 2005; and various web sites

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