Engineer Taps Heat-Loving Bacteria for Hydrogen

Jul 30, 2008
Thermotoga maritima (green/yellow rods) growing in co-culture with Methanococcus jannaschii (red spheres). T. maritima ferments sugars to hydrogen and M. jannaschii converts hydrogen to methane.

A North Carolina State University engineer has been awarded a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to learn more about the microbiology, genetics and genomics behind how and why heat-loving bacteria called thermotogales produce large amounts of hydrogen with unusually high efficiencies. These microorganisms are found all over the globe in areas which are naturally hot – including volcanic sediments, hot springs and brines from deep oil wells.

The findings could help propel the use of hydrogen for many energy applications, including a new era of automobile travel. Hydrogen-powered cars, which exist in limited and expensive supply, are considered by many to be the holy grail of future vehicle travel.

Figuring out the mechanisms behind thermotogale hydrogen production and exploiting these insights for applications in new hydrogen fuel cells could make hydrogen cars ubiquitous and provide one answer to the global energy crisis, says Dr. Robert Kelly, Alcoa Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State and the principal investigator for the grant.

Kelly will work with colleagues from the University of Connecticut and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to learn more about how the thermatogales consume sugars and produce hydrogen in such efficient ways.

"These organisms produce copious amounts of hydrogen as a waste product of their metabolism, even though hydrogen ultimately inhibits their growth," Kelly says. "We'd like to learn more about the connection between sugar consumption and hydrogen yields and how to take advantage of their unique bioenergetics at high temperatures."

Kelly has worked with a number of different heat-loving organisms over the past 25 years, and has learned a lot about them, including how to effectively grow them in his lab. Besides hydrogen-producing organisms, he is also interested in organisms that efficiently break down cellulose – the primary structural component of plants – to produce sugars that can be fermented into ethanol. One of the current areas of interest is how different microorganisms from high temperature environments coexist and at the same time produce enzymes or byproducts, such as hydrogen, for biofuels applications.

"Figuring out exactly how these organisms tick – and how different types of organisms work together or are at odds with one another in nature – could yield important insights that get us to alternative energy sources in the near future," Kelly says.

Provided by North Carolina State University

Explore further: China's latest survey finds increase in wild giant pandas

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Korean tech start-ups offer life beyond Samsung

5 hours ago

As an engineering major at Seoul's Yonsei University, Yoon Ja-Young was perfectly poised to follow the secure, lucrative and socially prized career path long-favoured by South Korea's elite graduates.

Fresh nuclear leak detected at Fukushima plant

17 hours ago

Sensors at the Fukushima nuclear plant have detected a fresh leak of highly radioactive water to the sea, the plant's operator announced Sunday, highlighting difficulties in decommissioning the crippled plant.

Spacewalking astronauts route cable in 1st of 3 jobs

17 hours ago

(AP)—Spacewalking astronauts routed more than 300 feet (90 meters) of cable outside the International Space Station on Saturday, tricky and tiring advance work for the arrival of new American-made crew ...

Recommended for you

A molecular compass for bird navigation

Feb 27, 2015

Each year, the Arctic Tern travels over 40,000 miles, migrating nearly from pole to pole and back again. Other birds make similar (though shorter) journeys in search of warmer climes. How do these birds manage ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.