JUN 01, 2022 10:00 AM PDT

Researchers develop new biobattery for hydrogen storage

The battle against climate change is ongoing and will likely never end. Researchers and entrepreneurs have made incredible strides with carbon-neutral energy sources, to include solar power, wind farms, hydropower, ocean energy, and geothermal power. Another source is green hydrogen, which is a technology based on the generation of hydrogen—a universal, light, and highly reactive fuel—through a chemical process known as electrolysis. This method uses electricity to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water, and that electricity is then used to produce energy without emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The problem arises when we have to transport hydrogen, which as stated is a highly reactive fuel. However, new research offers a solution to this problem.

In a recent study published in Joule, team of microbiologists from Goethe University Frankfurt has succeeded in using bacteria for the controlled storage and release of hydrogen, has found an enzyme in bacteria that live in the absence of air and bind hydrogen directly to carbon dioxide, in this way producing formic acid. This is an important step in the search for carbon-neutral energy sources in the interest of climate protection.

The process is completely reversible -- a basic requirement for hydrogen storage. These acetogenic bacteria, which are found, for example, in the deep sea, feed on carbon dioxide, which they metabolize to formic acid with the aid of hydrogen. Normally, however, this formic acid is just an intermediate product of their metabolism and further digested into acetic acid and ethanol. But the team led by Professor Volker Müller, head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Bioenergetics, has adapted the bacteria in such a way that it is possible not only to stop this process at the formic acid stage but also to reverse it. The basic principle has already been patented since 2013.

"The measured rates of CO2 reduction to formic acid and back are the highest ever measured and many times greater than with other biological or chemical catalysts; in addition, and unlike chemical catalysts, the bacteria do not require rare metals or extreme conditions for the reaction, such as high temperatures and high pressures, but instead do the job at 30 °C and normal pressure," reports Müller. The group now has a new success to report: the development of a biobattery for hydrogen storage with the help of the same bacteria.

Volker Müller had already studied the properties of these special bacteria in his doctoral thesis -- and spent many years conducting fundamental research on them. "I was interested in how these first organisms organized their life processes and how they managed to grow in the absence of air with simple gases such as hydrogen and carbon dioxide," he explains. As a result of climate change, his research has acquired a new, application-oriented dimension. Surprisingly for many engineers, biology can produce by all means practicable solutions, he says.

There you have it, folks. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, scientists start using bacteria to fight climate change. That’s actually pretty awesome.

What other discoveries will scientists make in the fight against climate change? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: Simply Energy, Iberdrola, Joule

MS in Geological Sciences
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
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