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Tennessee Scientists Generate Hydrogen With Photosynthesis


photosynthesis-hydrogenHydrogen is the cleanest fuel ever discovered. Indeed, hydrogen is nothing more than a storage, since the true energy comes from the Sun in one way or the other. Generally, hydrogen is now being harvested from petroleum, and the process of extraction uses a lot of energy, thus diminishing its efficiency and carbon footprint.

Barry Bruce, a professor of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, along with Oak Ridge Laboratory researchers, demonstrated that hydrogen may well be generated by using photosynthesis, a process plants use to harvest their energy from the Sun.

Prof. Bruce isolated the core of the photosynthetic process from certain algae, and proved that, if coupled with a platinum catalyst, it could produce hydrogen in the presence of light. Photosynthesis is at the base of our fossil fuel energy, because it comes from the plants that lived here millions of years ago – indirectly, from the Sun.

“Biofuel as many people think of it now — harvesting plants and converting their woody material into sugars which get distilled into combustible liquids — probably cannot replace gasoline as a major source of fuel,” said Bruce. “We found that our process is more direct and has the potential to create a much larger quantity of fuel using much less energy, which has a wide range of benefits.”

Bruce’s method of producing hydrogen cuts two intermediate processes: time and energy.

Scientists have already studied the use of photosynthesis as a hydrogen source, but have not succeeded making the reaction to be efficient at the high temperatures you would normally have inside a solar harnessing system (namely solar concentrator).

Bruce and his fellow researchers discovered that by starting with a thermophilic blue-green algae, which favors warmer temperatures, they could sustain the reaction at temperatures as high as 55 degrees C, or 131 degrees F. That is roughly the temperature in arid deserts with high solar irradiation, where the process would be most productive. They also found the process was more than 10 times more efficient as the temperature increased.

“As both a dean and a chemist, I am very impressed with this recent work by Professor Bruce and his colleagues,” said Bruce Bursten, dean of UT Knoxville’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Hydrogen has the potential to be the cleanest fuel alternative to petroleum, with no greenhouse gas production, and we need new innovations that allow for hydrogen to be readily produced from non-hydrocarbon sources. Professor Bruce and his team have provided a superb example of how excellence in basic research can contribute significantly to technological and societal advances.”

State financing should go into such a direction. Based on my expertise in the alternative energy sector, I found hydrogen as the best way to fuel our lives. The only problem is finding the cleanest way to produce (extract it).

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