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Maybe we should just admit that the future is unpredictable, especially the hydrogen economy. Just recently, we've seen Toyota predict the cost of hydrogen will be between $5-and-$7 per kilogram in the future. UC Davis also recently released a report that says hydrogen can be inexpensive in the future, but that likely continued fracking for natural gas will be necessary. But what if it isn't?

Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) say they have discovered yet another interesting way to to mimic the photosynthesis of a leaf to create hydrogen that could be used as a fuel. The secret is a new protein that, "when exposed to light, displays the electrical heartbeat that is the key to photosynthesis," according to ANU. The potential end results are not only hydrogen fuel for use in fuel cell vehicles but also, maybe, trapping carbon from the air.

In a statement, ANU's Dr. Kastoori Hingorani, said, "Water is abundant and so is sunlight. It is an exciting prospect to use them to create hydrogen, and do it cheaply and safely." Cheaply? That sounds good but we've heard about similar breakthroughs before. Still, this one sounds promising and if the press release below isn't detailed enough for you, you can find detailed research published in BBA Bioenergetics.
Show full PR text
Water and sunlight the formula for sustainable fuel

An ANU team has successfully replicated one of the crucial steps in photosynthesis, opening the way for biological systems powered by sunlight which could manufacture hydrogen as a fuel.

"Water is abundant and so is sunlight. It is an exciting prospect to use them to create hydrogen, and do it cheaply and safely," said Dr Kastoori Hingorani, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis in the ANU Research School of Biology.

Hydrogen offers potential as a zero-carbon replacement for petroleum products, and is already used for launching space craft. However, until this work, the way that plants produce hydrogen by splitting water has been poorly understood.

The team created a protein which, when exposed to light, displays the electrical heartbeat that is the key to photosynthesis.

The system uses a naturally-occurring protein and does not need batteries or expensive metals, meaning it could be affordable in developing countries, Dr Hingorani said.

Co-researcher Professor Ron Pace said the research opened up new possibilities for manufacturing hydrogen as a cheap and clean source of fuel.

"This is the first time we have replicated the primary capture of energy from sunlight," Professor Pace said.

"It's the beginning of a whole suite of possibilities, such as creating a highly efficient fuel, or to trapping atmospheric carbon."

Professor Pace said large amounts of hydrogen fuel produced by artificial photosynthesis could transform the economy.

"That carbon-free cycle is essentially indefinitely sustainable. Sunlight is extraordinarily abundant, water is everywhere – the raw materials we need to make the fuel. And at the end of the usage cycle it goes back to water," he said.

The team modified a much-researched and ubiquitous protein, Ferritin, which is present in almost all living organisms.

Ferritin's usual role is to store iron, but the team removed the iron and replaced it with the abundant metal, manganese, to closely resemble the water splitting site in photosynthesis.

The protein also binds a haem group, which the researchers replaced with a light-sensitive pigment, Zinc Chlorin.

When they shone light onto the modified ferritin, there was a clear indication of charge transfer just like in natural photosynthesis.

The possibilities inspired visionary researcher Associate Professor Warwick Hillier, who led the research group until his death from brain cancer, earlier this year.

"Associate Professor Hillier imagined modifying E. coli so that it expresses the gene to create ready-made artificial photosynthetic proteins. It would be a self-replicating system – all you need to do is shine light on it," Dr Hingorani said.


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  • 23 Comments
      Electron
      • 9 Months Ago
      Guess this is the hydrogen equivalent of a battery breakthrough announcement. Of course with battery electrics it's only the battery that needs substantial further improvement, with hydrogen it's the way the hydrogen is produced (cost/environment/sustainability), the cost of the infrastructure and the cost/durability of the fuel cell stacks.
      goodoldgorr
      • 9 Months Ago
      There is maybe more breakthrus to be made with hydrogen then battery. To date I don't know if battery breakthrough will happen or if hydrogen breakthrus will happen but I know that for today a cheap gasoline small car is the best compare to the nat gas Honda civic, the prius, phev, volt, tesla, volks diesel, leaf, tesla roadster, c-max hybrid, accord hybrid, v6, v8, v12, nev, leafh2, fisker karma, caddillac xlr, Ferrari, Porsche, veron, , turbo, nascar, formula e, Peugeot air hybrid, fuelcell, walmart hybrid tractor-trailer truck with nat gas turbine generator,.
      Dave D
      • 9 Months Ago
      LOL I always hated taking those "photo ops". They are so awkward where the photographer is saying: OK, both of you look at the beaker and act like you're discussing it...and smile.
        Jon
        • 9 Months Ago
        @Dave D
        "And any chance you could make the liquid in the beaker green? That clear stuff doesn't look as cool. Here, I have some Gatorade..."
      jeff
      • 9 Months Ago
      Just 10 - 20 year and it will be reality....
      DaveMart
      • 9 Months Ago
      Are one of the many approaches to producing hydrogen directly going to work? I don't know. Are they all definitely not going to work? Those who proclaim so loudly on the supposed folly of hydrogen and that batteries are the one, the only true religion don't know either. At this stage of the game keeping options open is the wisest course. Not that direct photosynthetic production of hydrogen is the only way to make a hydrogen economy work, but if it does it would seem to definitely be the overwhelming choice to generate fuel.
        jeff
        • 9 Months Ago
        @DaveMart
        So far ALL H2 production methods have been horribly energy inefficient. Splitting it from NG is the only one even close to parity with making gasoline and it produces nearly (if not) as much pollution to do it... This might work, but I seriously doubt it.... It sound more like the school is fishing for research grants...
          DarylMc
          • 9 Months Ago
          @jeff
          Hi MarcoPolo I think EV's can work well now if you adjust the problem to suit the solution. Where that becomes difficult is when most people have an expectation that they will continue to use private motor vehicles as they are used now. Hydrogen does fill that gap but I think there is a lot of room for people to reassess their needs.
          Marco Polo
          • 9 Months Ago
          @jeff
          @ jeff Evidently you have no idea about how the ANU is funded, if you did you would realise how ludicrous and gratuitously offensive, you are being when you describe a group of highly respected, and dedicated scientific researchers as dishonestly "fishing for research grants" . Like so many of your comments, you base your accusations without bothering to perform even a modicum of research. As a 'fuel' , H2 is not " horribly energy inefficient " ! It simply depends upon the context. HFCV's have the potential to emulate diesel and gasoline vehicle convenience, across a wide range of vehicles, and a very wide range of circumstance. Production of H2, is far less pollutant than gasoline/diesel. Batteries powered vehicles have a very narrow range of applications, which is why without a dramatic increase in ESD capacity, EV's will only be produced in limited numbers. Both technologies have advantages and disadvantages, blindly choosing one technology as if supporting a football team, is not logical, nor even very rational.
        archos
        • 9 Months Ago
        @DaveMart
        At this stage we already have a clear winner. Batteries. Another run of leased experiments restricted to a couple cities is not on par with 100,000s of thousands of EVs now produced yearly. The continued decline in battery costs plus the effect Musk's gigafactory will have will put EVs on cost parity with cars within the next 10 years - this is already projected. No such talk with hydrogen. Just the same old recycled press releases.
          Joeviocoe
          • 9 Months Ago
          @archos
          @ DaveMart ICE had 100 years head start with nobody making any EVs. And before you mention the 19th century Lead Acid EVs when Horse and Carriage were the dominate forms of transportation... they have almost nothing compared to Li-Ion battery cars today. It is NOT about the current (static) state of the numbers of vehicles produced, but the rate and trend which EVs are growing each year. And at this rate, archos and the projections he referenced, are correct. Autoblog Comments Enhancer (ACE) v1.0.0 - bit.ly/Autoblog_Comments
          DaveMart
          • 9 Months Ago
          @archos
          If you are playing a numbers game the overwhelming winner is combustion engine cars.
        PeterScott
        • 9 Months Ago
        @DaveMart
        "but if it does it would seem to definitely be the overwhelming choice to generate fuel." Does what? Based on what? Economics are the overwhelming driver of that choice, and I have seen nothing that looks like it will displace SMR of NG in economic terms. Economics are also an overwhelming factor in vehicle choice. This makes EVs a hard sell, but it will make H2 FCVs and even harder sell. To paraphrase: "It's the economics, stupid!"
      • 9 Months Ago
      Solution to Global drought and sea level rise. http://geniussolutionsink.blogspot.com/2014/08/solution-to-global-sea-levels-rising.html
        Ziv
        • 9 Months Ago
        I don't know about you, but I kind of like an author that states, " Is it possible to solve both issues in one fowl swoop? " Nit picking aside, increasing the amount of water in aquifers and in the Sea of Aral are no brainers. Actually pumping seawater into a desert seems kind of silly. It would be a lot easier to simply build retention systems and harvest spring floodwaters year after year. The effort would also need to harvest a smaller amount of water nearly every month, but the collection of spring run off would give most of the water needed. The dams could be built over the Ogalala Aquifer and similar geographical features so that evaporation would be lessened albeit not eliminated. It wouldn't lower the ocean level much, but if it could be done inexpensively, it could make a difference.
          • 9 Months Ago
          @Ziv
          Thank you for your feedback! The purpose of doing controlled water pumping in the desert is not for increasing aquifers, it is to increase global precipitation long term and lower sea levels long term. Pumping trillions if not zillions of gallons into the desert will not be done over night, it will be an ongoing process. Thanks!
        archos
        • 9 Months Ago
        So your solution to global warming is flood a bunch of areas to create more water vapor? Besides the impossible amounts of water it would take to even register a difference, and how precipitation would just go right back into the ocean, its not a very smart idea. For every degree in temp. rise its a 10% increase in water vapor in the atmosphere, and they're forecasting 4 degrees rise.. Any reason why we need even more than 40% more increased precipitation? There will already be unbelievably huge flooding with that much more water. Water vapor is also a potent greenhouse gas, so your solution would only add to an exist problem.
          • 9 Months Ago
          @archos
          Not just a bunch trillions if not zillions of gallons. Under these circumstances global precipitation will not happen over night, it will be an ongoing long process 10 years plus. The precipitation will be clean water and some deserts are hundreds of miles away from the ocean. It will rain and the regions surrounding the project will become more fertile and over time there will be a global shift of precipitation and thus a shift in global drought. All of the precipitation levels, rain levels, vs climate et cetera, are all mathematical equations and thus can be calculated and controled.
        Jesse Gurr
        • 9 Months Ago
        Ya know it would probably be easier and/or better to just build a whole bunch of desalination plants. That way we will lower the sea level but also make drinkable water at the same time. I think waiting for evaporation to become precipitation might take too long, and there is no guarantee that the rain would fall on land anyway. It's just as likely to fall on the ocean making all that effort worthless. You could fill the dams with the water from the plants. If you are worried about energy use, just build nuclear plants nearby the desalination plants. They could be built practically anywhere there is ocean. Problem solved.
        GoodCheer
        • 9 Months Ago
        That might... MIGHT not be a totally terrible idea for areas that are endorheic basins and the soil is already salt-poisoned. If you dug a trench from the Pacific to Death valley, into the Afar depression from the Red Sea, or into the Quattara depression from the Med, it would could increase the effective sea surface area by a tiny fraction, drop sea levels world-wide by maybe a few millimeters, and sacrifice comparatively little productive land. Any time you need to involve pumps though (the examples I mentioned are all below sea level), your energy needs would be so enormous that your 'solution to AGW' would end up dramatically exacerbating it. Putting salt water into any natural system where it might drain down a river would be a crime against humanity and nature, and would literally kill everything downriver. You would in one stroke, make droughts far far worse, because the entire river system would be poisoned to the fresh-water ecosystems, which includes us.
          • 9 Months Ago
          @GoodCheer
          Thanks for your input, some good ideas! To clarify, The level of sea water will be controlled and pumped hand in hand with the evaporation rates. The idea is to increase global precipitation, not have large reservoirs of sea water. I need to clarify this point in the Blog, thank you again. Regarding the desert ecosystems the reason to do this is benefit vs cost. I am suggesting that the benefit of this globally will far exceed the cost of what may be lost in the desert.
        Jesse Gurr
        • 9 Months Ago
        I don't think that pumping sea water into deserts and empty dams is the right answer. That may lower the sea level a tiny bit but that would kill any vegetation in the area and make the ground soil sterile. You know about the salt flats right? Something like that would likely result. Now it may not make that much difference in the desert, but there are still plants and animals there that would be killed. Also, the areas around dams would also not be green anymore. You might think that those would be acceptable losses, but how long do you think we can keep that up? Not to mention that a lot of that water would just flow down back into the ocean anyway. We would need a better solution.
          • 9 Months Ago
          @Jesse Gurr
          Thank you for your feedback! I think the salt flats are a phenomenal test subject. There will be life lost no question in the deserts. The tradeoff is the reason to do this, life saved/sustained vs life lost. I'm not suggesting lowering the levels a little bit, I'm suggesting every desert in the world, every dried dam in the world be flooded with sea water. The change in global precipitation is equally if not more important than the sea level rising. In answer to how long.. The distribution of water will have to run hand and hand with evaporation ratios and this is to done permanently on a global basis.
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