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: Major turtle nesting beaches protected in 1 of the UK's far flung overseas territories

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Satellite galaxies put astronomers in a spin

42 minutes ago

An international team of researchers, led by astronomers at the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg (CNRS/Université de Strasbourg), has studied 380 galaxies and shown that their small satellite galaxies almost always ...

Recommended for you

'Killer sperm' prevents mating between worm species

14 hours ago

The classic definition of a biological species is the ability to breed within its group, and the inability to breed outside it. For instance, breeding a horse and a donkey may result in a live mule offspring, ...

Rare Sri Lankan leopards born in French zoo

17 hours ago

Two rare Sri Lankan leopard cubs have been born in a zoo in northern France, a boost for a sub-species that numbers only about 700 in the wild, the head of the facility said Tuesday.

Japan wraps up Pacific whale hunt

18 hours ago

Japan announced Tuesday that it had wrapped up a whale hunt in the Pacific, the second campaign since the UN's top court ordered Tokyo to halt a separate slaughter in the Antarctic.

Researchers uncover secrets of internal cell fine-tuning

18 hours ago

New research from scientists at the University of Kent has shown for the first time how the structures inside cells are regulated – a breakthrough that could have a major impact on cancer therapy development.

User comments : 0