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Power Science Technology

Hydrogen-Producing Bacteria Could Provide Clean Energy 57

Iddo Genuth writes "Scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and North Carolina State University (NC State) have developed cooperatively a new 'green' technology which could lead to clean production of hydrogen from nitrogen-fixing bacteria."
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Hydrogen-Producing Bacteria Could Provide Clean Energy

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  • What will we have to feed these bacteria and how much money will it cost to power my Q6600 ?

  • Clean? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:17PM (#25491207)

    So we're going to be using some other creatures shit for our fuel? Hardly clean. It's shit!

  • A twosome. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Ostracus ( 1354233 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:17PM (#25491209) Journal

    Umm, two things.

    "Using a selecting agent to grow only these bacteria, the teams identified a gene that inactivates the bacteria's hydrogen uptake system so that all of the hydrogen produced is released. Because the bacterial cells cannot recycle the hydrogen, the hydrogen they produce can be captured and used as a fuel whose byproduct is water and heat"

    What effect does this have on the bacteria?

    Also it seems like two different stories. the first is about agricultural bacteria. The link to the website talks about heat-loving bacteria like near volcanoes.

    • by Andr T. ( 1006215 ) <andretaff.gmail@com> on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:35PM (#25491427)

      The link to the website talks about heat-loving bacteria like near volcanoes.

      My name: Bacillus Vulcani
      Likes: heat, being near a vulcanoe, being inside human beings.
      Dislikes: penicilin, cold.
      Ideal date: meeting someone while in a tongue during a kiss, watching a beautiful vulcanoe explosion.

      My name: hydrogenProducin'2008
      Likes: producing hydrogen. Spell games.
      Dislikes: tetracycline, human's immune system.
      Ideal date: in the end, we should get nasty and produce some heat

    • by Behrooz ( 302401 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:51PM (#25491573)

      What effect does this have on the bacteria?

      "Think of the bacteria! Oh, won't somebody please think of the bacteria!"

    • Re:A twosome. (Score:5, Informative)

      by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:55PM (#25491595)
      It wouldn't necessarily have to have any impact on the bacteria themselves. The equation for biological nitrogen fixation is
      N2 + 8H+ + 8e- + 16 ATP 2NH3 + H2 + 16ADP + 16 Pi (where Pi is inorganic phosphate)

      Basically, nitrogen-fixing bacteria use an enzyme called nitrogenase to grab a nitrogen molecule (N2), donate electrons to the nitrogen molecule to break the triple bond, then bond protons to the nitrogen -3 ions to form stable ammonia, which the bacteria then incorporates into amino acids- the inorganic becomes organic. This requires a large amount of energy, supplied by a very large amount of ATP breaking apart. Notice that on the right side of the equation, hydrogen gas is produced. Normally, the bacterium reclaims this hydrogen through use of another enzyme. However, with the hydrogen uptake enzyme disabled, the bacteria should release this gas into the environment. I say "should" here because I will admit the possibility of something unforeseen happening.

      However, the basic equation does not call for molecular hydrogen as a reactant; it calls for protons, which can be found pretty freely in any aqueous environment. Just raise the bacteria in a slightly acidic enviroment, and they should have all the protons they could ever need. The bacteria already have an amazing symbiosis set up with the legume plants they live on, so really all humans need to put into the system is the effort to keep a bunch of bean plants alive (which is helped by the nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots that naturally provide fertilizer for the legumes). All humans would really need to put into the system is water, sunlight, and nitrogen gas. I think this is a really clever idea, actually.

      I wonder if it might also be possible to use engineered nitrogen-fixing bacteria for their ammonia in order to replace the Haber-Bosch process, which, while a triumph of industrial chemistry, is responsible for something like 1% of the world's energy use.

      • Re:A twosome. (Score:4, Informative)

        by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @09:09PM (#25491731)

        Looks like I lost my arrow in the equation there. It should read:

        N2 + 8H+ + 8e- + 16 ATP -----> 2NH3 + H2 + 16ADP + 16 Pi

        One diatomic nitrogen, eight protons, eight electrons, and sixteen adenosine triphosphates form two ammonia, two diatomic hydrogen (which we'd like), sixteen adenosine diphosphate, and sixteen inorganic phosphate. The nitrogen comes from the atmosphere, the protons and electrons from the bacterium (the enzyme nitrogenase helps with providing electrons), and the ATP from the bacteria's metabolism, food for which comes courtesy the bacterium's symbiotic buddy, the legume.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by MarkGriz ( 520778 )

          N2 + 8H+ + 8e- + 16 ATP -----> 2NH3 + H2 + 16ADP + 16 Pi

          Let me get this straight... we get free hydrogen AND pie ?! Sign me up.

          • by bugnuts ( 94678 )

            Let me get this straight... we get free hydrogen AND pie ?! Sign me up.

            Yes, but unfortunately it smells like piss.

      • Re:A twosome. (Score:5, Informative)

        by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @11:09PM (#25492787)

        Looking deeper into it, I should note that the specific bacteria cited here, Thermotoga maritima, are not the sort to be found on the roots of legumes. Apparently, "The Future of Things" condensed two separate discoveries into one story. The NC State work is more about identifying hydrogen-producing bacteria, while the Agricultural Research Service work is about building on the NC State work to find suitable hydrogen-producing candidates in agriculturally significant bacteria, and then decoupling hydrogen reuptake to make hydrogen collection feasible. The thermotogales that the NC State professor cited is interested in are most definitely not agriculturally significant.

        Thermotogales are hyperthermophiles that live in places like hot springs, oceanic thermal vents, and the bottoms of oil wells. The processes involved are completely different- thermotogale bacteria are not nitrogen-fixers. They produce hydrogen as part of their basic metabolism. Humans, for example, produce water in their metabolism. We use oxygen as our terminal electron acceptor, so the oxygen we breathe and send to our cells gains some electrons, then quickly picks up some protons to form water. Thermotogales, however, live in an enviromnent with little oxygen, but lots of sulfur. They use sulfur as a terminal electron acceptor, and so produce hydrogen sulfide, H2S. If the available sulfur happens to be in a bound form, however, instead of producing hydrogen sulfide, they will produce lots and lots of hydrogen gas. Unfortunately, thermotogales are not very tolerant of oxygen and prefer to live in near-boiling water, so while there has been investigation into their industrial use, their suitability is far less than that of the common nitrogen-fixers.

        In contrast, rhizobial bacteria have a mutual arrangement in place with legumes that make them far more hardy. Most legumes grow nodules on their roots to serve as homes for nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The enzyme-catalyzed nitrogen fixation is ruined by oxygen, so the nodule provides an anoxic environment. The legume also provides a carbon source for the bacteria. In exchange, the bacteria provide bioavailable nitrogen compounds to the legume. So, while the rate of hydrogen production is less from nitrogen-fixers, the advantages of the symbiotic arrangement are such that if you wanted to make a biotech hydrogen generation facility, a greenhouse full of bean plants might be the way to go.

      • Seeing as how the lead investigator is the Alcoa Professor of..., I think that it's a safe bet that broader concerns about more energy-thrifty processes were in mind. Aluminum manufacture being, after all, one of the most energy-hungry processes in the world. Also I can't help but notice that yet again I'm seeing state of the art biofuels work from North Carolina, source of the best biodiesel book done yet, source of some of the best and earliest work on switchgrass as fuel, source of no small amount of wor
  • Still need sugars (Score:3, Interesting)

    by draco664 ( 960985 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:17PM (#25491217)
    Sure, their waste product is hydrogen, but they still need 'food', in this case, certain sugars.

    Creating these sugars is the energy intensive bit.

    Of course, if TFA says, they can find/discover/developa organisms that can break cellulose down to these sugars, then things are going to get *very* interesting.

    • Cows can break down cellulose into sugars. So can horses.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Cows can break down cellulose into sugars. So can horses.

        Through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in their digestive systems. Most herbivores can digest cellulistic material far better then humans who have neither the same digestive tract setup nor the same set of symbiotic bacterias. Which suits me just fine, the cows can graze all day and I can have steak. Sure beats chewing grass all day. Hopefully scientists will be very careful and chose not to genetically engineer the bacteria necessary to aid t

    • by CorporateSuit ( 1319461 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:29PM (#25491335)

      Sure, their waste product is hydrogen, but they still need 'food', in this case, certain sugars.

      Now, if the waste product they were looking for was methane and the food was sugars, we could harness children as an energy source!

      • Why would you need methane?

        Feed a child sugar, tie it to a treadmill, and watch the power flow!

      • by dave562 ( 969951 )
        Or every soda swilling coder on the planet.
      • Why not capture the energy used to type and convert it to electricity. Then we can teach monkeys to type. These type-monkeys, or code-monkeys if you will, can provide us with a vastly abundant energy source.
      • Or just pour all the High Fructose Corn Syrup on them that this nation produces... How much energy do we waste to be ingesting poison...?

      • by Abreu ( 173023 )

        Do you have kids?

        Small children (3-6 years old) are amazingly energy-efficient! Feed a couple of them a small amount of sugars after 6pm if you don't believe me!

        The other day I was thinking if it was plausible to build a playground that converts some of that energy into electricity...
        I am sure my kids could charge our cellphones and laptops in a couple of hours of play!

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Yeah, that's what this guy got the grant for; to research both this sugar-eating,hydrogen-producing bacteria and the cellulose-eating, sugar-producing bacteria. Although using the sugars to make ethanol may be more efficient than feeding it to the hydrogen-producing bacteria. :)
    • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @08:58PM (#25491627) Journal

      Of course, if TFA says, they can find/discover/developa organisms that can break cellulose down to these sugars, then things are going to get *very* interesting.

      Interesting, as in every house, tree, book, and pair of blue jeans being eaten by some cellulolytic bacteria that escaped the lab?

    • Re:Still need sugars (Score:5, Informative)

      by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @09:44PM (#25492047)

      Actually, the bacteria they used has this aspect covered. From the MicrobeWiki [kenyon.edu] (ridiculously informative, btw):

      Thermotogales are thermophilic or hyperthermophilic, growing best around 80C and in the neutral pH range (R. Huber et al., 2004). The salt tolerance of Thermotoga species varies greatly; while some display an extremely high salt tolerance, others are restricted to low-salinity habitats. This aerobic gram-negative organism is typically nonsporeforming and metabolizes several carbohydrates, both simple and complex, including glucose, sucrose, starch, cellulose, and xylan (EBI, 2003).

      (Bolding mine) So it eats cellulose and makes hydrogen. Mildly useful, I would say.

  • Hydrogen producing bacteria are pretty easy to locate! [wikipedia.org]

    I do wonder how deep you have to swab, though...

  • by bunbuntheminilop ( 935594 ) on Thursday October 23, 2008 @10:16PM (#25492351)
    From tfa

    T. maritima ferments sugars to hydrogen and M. jannaschii converts hydrogen to methane

    I don't understand. What's going on at NCSU that they would provide so little detail for this release. How the hell do you covert hydrogen to methane?

  • to come out of the ARS ...
  • news is cyclical. (Score:1, Redundant)

    by nimbius ( 983462 )
    give it 15 years and the headline will read "bacterial experiment reduces city to embers"
  • http://www.engr.psu.edu/ce/enve/mfc-Logan_files/mfc-Logan.htm [psu.edu] it's pretty legit. They can use wastewater as fuel that will ultimately be enough to power the water purification process itself. This could save 5% of all energy consumed in the U.S., which is pretty substantial in the broad scheme of things
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Anyone ever heard of Ben Bova's "Green Trap"? http://www.amazon.com/Green-Trap-Ben-Bova/dp/0765309246

    It's about the science in this situation...

  • Without RTFA, I find that this is fantastic news. Now, if I get a bacterial infection, I don't have to eat!

Riches cover a multitude of woes. -- Menander