Microbiology Could Revolutionize Energy and Materials Production

November 29, 2006

A number of recent findings in microbiology are pointing towards a potential revolution in the production of hydrogen, power, and biobased materials. For example, in an attempt to understand photosynthesis—the biological process that captures the energy in sunlight—researchers at DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) have used high-resolution measurements to determine the structure of a catalytic cluster of atoms found in a photosynthetic protein complex. Understanding the structure of the catalyst, which consists of four manganese atoms and one calcium atom, could help lead to an efficient method of converting solar energy into hydrogen. On a more practical level, researchers at Nanologix, Inc. have developed bacteria that feed on a mixture of switchgrass and grape juice waste under anaerobic conditions, producing a mixture of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. According to the company, the carbon dioxide is easily removed from the gas mixture, leaving only pure hydrogen gas. See the press releases from LBNL and Nanologix.

Other recent advances suggest ways to convert biomass directly into electricity. A study of proteins by DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) found that energy supplied to the proteins caused them to transfer electrons to a mineral. Employed in a fuel cell, the unique proteins could potentially convert biological waste directly into electricity. Meanwhile, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research has awarded a $4.5 million, five-year grant to the University of Southern California to investigate bacteria that could be used in a fuel cell to convert waste directly into electricity. See the press releases from PNNL and the Air Force.

Bacteria could also lead to new ways to produce materials from sugars. For example, lactic-acid producing bacteria are able to convert beet or cane sugars into the polymer dextran, which can be used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. To help understand that feat, a team of public, private, and academic researchers has decoded the DNA of nine representative strains of lactic acid-producing bacteria. The study included scientists from DOE's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). See the press releases from JGI and ARS.