Subject: Viridian Note 00132: Treated Algae Spews Pure Hydrogen

Key concepts: biotech, hydrogen, biomass, patent,

Attention Conservation Notice: It's been a great year for wacky tech breakthroughs, and it's only February.

UC Berkeley beats the drum for its new patented goo: 2000b.html
A fabulous pic of a whole jug-full of hydrogen-spewing green gunk: .jpg
The lead discoverer, Professor Melis, would look great in a Nobel tuxedo: It's genuine science! He's gonna present at the next AAAS conference! They're publishing this month in a serious, refereed, peer-reviewed journal!
The Feds who paid for the research:

Entries in the "Dead Mike" Design contest:

Viridian contests archive:

This contest expires February 15, 02000.

Source: UC Berkeley Press Release, Jan 27, 02000 2000b.html

"Patent filed on energy discovery: UC Berkeley and Colorado scientists find valuable new source of fuel"

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs

"BERKELEY == A metabolic switch that triggers algae to turn sunlight into large quantities of hydrogen gas, a valuable fuel, is the subject of a new discovery reported for the first time by University of California, Berkeley, scientists and their Colorado colleagues. The news appears in this month's issue of the journal 'Plant Physiology.'

"'I guess it's the equivalent of striking oil,' said UC Berkeley plant and microbial biology professor Tasios Melis. 'It was enormously exciting, it was unbelievable.'

(((Oh, I believe it all right. What I wonder is: what does it smell like?)))

"Melis and postdoctoral associate Liping Zhang of UC Berkeley made the discovery == funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Hydrogen Program == with Dr. Michael Seibert, Dr. Maria Ghirardi and postdoctoral associate Marc Forestier of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.

"Currently, hydrogen fuel is extracted from natural gas, a non-renewable energy source. The new discovery makes it possible to harness nature's own tool, photosynthesis, to produce the promising alternative fuel from sunlight and water. A joint patent on this new technique for capturing solar energy has been taken out by the two institutions.

(((Why is NREL patenting stuff? If they really have "struck hydrogen," it's gonna be interesting to watch the subsequent money trail.)))

"So far, only small-scale cultures of the microscopic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii have been examined in the laboratory for their hydrogen production capabilities, Melis said."

(((Give me a bottle! I've got some stuff in the back of the fridge that could be its twin brother. Let's make bathtub hydrogen!)))

"'In the future, both small-scale industrial and commercial operations and larger utility photobioreactor complexes can be envisioned using this process,' Melis said.

((("Welcome to our Utility Photobioreactor Complex." It just sounds so... so 21st Century!)))

"While current production rates are not high enough to make the process immediately viable commercially, the researchers believe that yields could rise by at least 10 fold with further research, someday making the technique an attractive fuel-producing option.

"Preliminary rough estimates, for instance, suggest it is conceivable that a single, small commercial pond could produce enough hydrogen gas to meet the weekly fuel needs of a dozen or so automobiles, Melis said.

(((Did you hear that? You can run a dozen cars off a pond full of green scum!)))

"The scientific team is just beginning to test ways to maximize hydrogen production, including varying the particular type of microalga used and its growth conditions. (...)

"'Hydrogen is so clean burning that what comes out of the exhaust pipe is pure water,' Melis said. 'You can drink it.'"

(((I wouldn't necessarily advise drinking the algae, however. At the very least, you'll be venting flammable hydrogen in highly embarrassing ways.)))

"Engineering advances for hydrogen storage, transportation and utilization, many sponsored by the U.S. DOE Hydrogen Program, are beginning to make the fuel feasible to power automobiles and buses and to generate electricity in this country, Seibert said.

(((What "transport"? It's pond scum! You just grow it on site!)))

"'What has been lacking is a renewable source of hydrogen,' he said.

(((That's true. Green hydrogen has been a missing key technology. If this thing is for real, it really transforms the prospects of the industry.)))

"For nearly 60 years, scientists have known that certain types of algae can produce the gas in this way, but only in trace amounts. Despite tinkering with the process, no one has been able to make the yield rise significantly without elaborate and costly procedures until the UC Berkeley and NREL teams made this discovery.

"The breakthrough, Melis said, was discovering what he calls a 'molecular switch.' This is a process by which the cell's usual photosynthetic apparatus can be turned off at will and the cell can be directed to use stored energy with hydrogen as the byproduct.

"'The switch is actually very simple to activate,' Melis said. 'It depends on the absence of an essential element, sulfur, from the microalga growth medium.'

"The absence of sulfur stops photosynthesis and thus halts the cell's internal production of oxygen. Without oxygen from any source, the anaerobic cells are not able to burn stored fuel in the usual way, through metabolic respiration. In order to survive, they are forced to activate the alternative metabolic pathway, which generates the hydrogen and may be universal in many types of algae.

"'They're utilizing stored compounds and bleeding hydrogen just to survive,' Melis said. 'It's probably an ancient strategy that the organism developed to live in sulfur-poor anaerobic conditions.'

(((So in other words, this isn't a genetically altered organism. It's a normal organism that has been metabolically starved. It'll be interesting to see the reaction of the anti-genemod contingent here. Is it "natural" or isn't it?)))

"He said the alga culture cannot live forever when it is switched over to hydrogen production, but that it can manage for a considerable period of time without negative effects.

(((Imagine how they must smell after you feed them with sulfur.)))

"The researchers first grow the alga 'photosynthetically, like every other plant on Earth,' Melis said. This allows the green-colored microorganisms to collect sunlight and accumulate a generous supply of carbohydrates and other fuels.

"When enough energy has been banked in this manner, the researchers tap it and turn it into hydrogen. To do this, they transfer the liquid alga culture, which resembles a lime-green soft drink, (((Oh yeah. Wow. I am so with that))) to stoppered one-liter glass bottles with no sulfur present. Then the culture is allowed to consume away all oxygen." ((Kind of an Atkins Diet thing going on here, basically.)))

"After about 24 hours, photosynthesis and normal metabolic respiration stop, and hydrogen begins to bubble to the top of the bottles and bleed off into tall, hydrogen-collection glass tubes."

(((Are you listening, It's a home distillery unit.)))

"'It was actually a surprise when we detected significant amounts of hydrogen coming out of the culture,' Melis said. 'We thought we would get trace amounts, but we got bulk amounts.' (((Hey, that's just what the cold-fusion guys said, too!)))

"After up to four days of generating an hourly average of about three milliliters of hydrogen per liter of culture, the culture is depleted of stored fuel and must be allowed to return to photosynthesis. Then, two or three days later, it again can be tapped for hydrogen, Melis said.

"'The cell culture can go back and forth like this many times,' Ghirardi said.

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