This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

December 11, 2002

DOE Project to Create New Life Form for Hydrogen Production

Producing hydrogen from non-petroleum sources is a difficult, energy-consuming task. Electrolysis-the process of applying an electrical current to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen-is usually costly and energy-inefficient. In recent years, researchers have coaxed algae and even spinach extracts into using sunlight to produce hydrogen, but these processes still have far to go before they achieve commercial success. Researchers at DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) even managed to use bacteria to produce a small but constant amount of hydrogen in recent experiments-see the NETL announcement.

Despite these advancements, researchers have yet to develop a natural process that efficiently and cheaply produces a large quantity of hydrogen for use as a fuel source. Those researchers using algae, bacteria, and other natural organisms must sometimes think that nature itself is falling short. And that's exactly the assumption taken by a new DOE project, which aims to make nature just a little bit better. Under the new project, announced in late November, DOE is providing a three-year, $3 million grant to the Institute of Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), which will develop a synthetic chromosome as the first step in developing cost-effective and efficient biological sources of energy. The institute aims to engineer organisms that could generate hydrogen or serve other purposes, such as carbon sequestration.

The research builds on previous work at The Institute for Genetic Research, which found a bacterium with a very small number of genes-only 517, compared to roughly 30,000 in the human genome. The institute's research team estimated that the smallest number of genes needed to sustain the bacterium could be as low as 265. That led the team to consider creating artificial chromosomes, which in turn led to the formation of the IBEA. See the IBEA press release.

For other recent examples of attempts to use organisms to produce hydrogen, see the February 23, 2000, and August 29, 2001, editions of EREN Network News.