Imagine being able to draw moisture from the air through your fingertips and create an electrical current as a result—that’s pure comic book superhero stuff right?
Not so, since researchers have been able to use a bacterial enzyme that conducts hydrogen to create electricity, literally out of thin air.
The discovery promises to open up a new field of clean energy that would take on all kinds of sci-fi forms.
“We’ve known for some time that bacteria can use the trace hydrogen in the air as a source of energy to help them grow and survive, including in Antarctic soils, volcanic craters, and the deep ocean,” said Monash Univ. Professor Chris Greening. “But we didn’t know how they did this, until now.”
In their discovery paper published in Nature, the researchers extracted the enzyme responsible for using atmospheric hydrogen from a bacterium called Mycobacterium smegmatis. They showed that this enzyme, called Huc, turns hydrogen gas into an electrical current.
“Huc is extraordinarily efficient,” notes co-author Dr. Rhys Grinter. “Unlike all other known enzymes and chemical catalysts, it even consumes hydrogen below atmospheric levels—as little as 0.00005% of the air we breathe.”
Laboratory work performed by Ph.D. student Ashleigh Kropp showed that it’s possible to store purified Huc for long periods.
“It is astonishingly stable,” she said. “It’s possible to freeze the enzyme or heat it to 80 degrees Celsius, and it retains its power to generate energy. This reflects that this enzyme helps bacteria to survive in the most extreme environments.”
The bacteria that produce enzymes like Huc are common and can be grown in large quantities, meaning humanity could potentially have access to a sustainable source of the enzyme. Dr. Grinter says that a key objective for future work is to scale up Huc production. “Once we produce Huc in sufficient quantities, the sky is quite literally the limit for using it to produce clean energy.”
“This is a really exciting discovery that could be a game changer in addressing climate change. It speaks to the strength of Monash research in developing smart solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. A big congratulations to [the team] what a fantastic achievement,” said Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Rebekah Brown, who was not involved in the study.