Bugs’ burps for efficient hydrogen production

Bacteria that turn sugar into hydrogen are being engineered by Macquarie University researchers after receiving a $1.1 million grant.

The project is one of 16 awarded $22.1 million in funding by ARENA to propel innovation in exporting renewable hydrogen to the world.

Professor Robert Willows said hydrogen is a clean and efficient energy source.

“There’s global interest in using hydrogen gas to produce electricity in hydrogen fuel cells, for example to power vehicles, heat buildings or provide electricity for industry,” he said.

“The aim of our project is to design a system that produces hydrogen relatively rapidly and at yields that are commercially viable,” says Robert.

“The bacterial approach has many advantages over hydrogen from algae, including that it doesn’t need large open ponds.”

While 95 per cent of the hydrogen used worldwide currently is produced from fossil fuels, increasingly people are looking at how to produce hydrogen from renewables.

Co-leader of the project Dr Louise Brown said a lot of recent research efforts are focused on using electrolysis to produce hydrogen by splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.

“Other people are taking a biological route, and tweaking photosynthesis in algae to produce hydrogen,” she said.

“We think we can use genetically engineered bacteria—in our case E. coli—which will be able to eat glucose produced from renewable sources likes sugar cane and cereals.

“We’ll also be looking at other low-cost carbohydrate feedstocks as well.”

The team is planning to scale up from their current, small lab set-up. This will allow them to test the safety and efficacy of their process as they work towards commercialising the technology.

“Even in the lab we can produce enough hydrogen in a day from a few spoonfuls of sugar, to produce enough energy to charge your mobile phone for up to two weeks,” Dr Brown said.

The researchers from Macquarie’s Department of Molecular Sciences have teamed up with BOC Australia and Bioplatforms Australia on the project.

The three-year grant from ARENA is being matched by an additional $1.7 million in further funding and in-kind support for the research.

“BOC is committed to supporting Australian research and development into the production and use of cleaner gaseous fuels for mobility and energy,” BOC general manager hydrogen and LNG Alex Dronoff said.

“Renewable hydrogen is a fuel of the future, and we are proud to share our global expertise with researchers from Macquarie University as they enter this next phase of technology development.”