Hydrogen from pond scum?

You could be growing your own car fuel in some scummy green tank in your living room one day, with or without engineered fluorescent fish inside. No, you wouldn’t be gassing the car or powering the house with fish pee, but with hydrogen produced by engineered algae.

Hydrogen is widely touted as the fuel of the future and now Tel Aviv University scientists have made two crucial discoveries. One is how algae produce it. The other is how to make them produce more of it, so hydrogen can be mass-produced, cheaply, and used not only in public transportation but industry.

“For the last 12,000 years we have been using agriculture to make food, but when it comes to energy, we are still hunter gatherers. Agriculture for energy is the next revolution,” research leader Assistant Prof. Iftach Yacoby, head of the renewable energy laboratory at Tel Aviv University, tells Haaretz. “There are other ways to produce hydrogen, but this is the greenest, and is the only agricultural one.”

In two separate papers published in the international science press, the TAU team describes the discovery that algae produce hydrogen from photosynthesis, not in a microburst at dawn, as assumed until now, but all the time. Secondly and crucially, they have engineered a way to boost production nearly fivefold by genetic engineering.

Photosynthesis is a biochemical process by which competent plants, algae and bacteria convert light energy into chemical energy. Generally speaking, photoautotrophs start from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20) that they first split into the composite atoms, carbon, oxygen and protons, using sunlight energy, then “cook” to make glucose sugar (‎C6H12O6).

Growing biofuel is not new, but the production of hydrogen is. Biofuels are hardly the great white hope either. For one thing, when they’re burned (i.e., used,) we get carbon emissions. With hydrogen, the only emission is water vapor.

What about cost? The scientists have done the math and, says Yacoby, the production costs should be less than $4 per kilo of hydrogen, which, mileage-wise, is roughly equivalent to 10 liters of gasoline. National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado thinks hydrogen can be made using the algae method for around $3 per kilo.

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