Engineers receive NSF grant

Oregon State University researchers are seeking to develop production of hydrogen fuel by harnessing photosynthetic microbes that use solar energy to split water molecules and make hydrogen.

OSU professors Roger Ely and Frank Chaplen in the Department of Bioengineering are receiving $900,000 over the next three years from a U.S. Department of Energy grant for their study.

Hydrogen fuel is clean and energy-rich. Fossil fuels such as gasoline or coal generate greenhouse gases, but burning hydrogen as fuel produces only water. To make hydrogen fuel takes energy, and current methods typically manufacture hydrogen from fossil fuels. To produce hydrogen fuel without emitting greenhouse gasses, a renewable form of energy would need to be used -- from the sun, wind or from a biological process.

The technology to do this is not yet fully developed, but Ely and Chaplen are trying to change this.

The two researchers are interested in the hydrogen-generating potential of a large group of photosynthetic micro-organisms called cyanobacteria. These bacteria, formerly known as blue-green algae, naturally generate energy from sunlight and, under certain conditions, can make hydrogen rather than sugars.

Ely says cyanobacteria may be a perfect living source for a safe, efficient and economical production of hydrogen for fuel.

The researchers must overcome a major hurdle: In natural systems, during photosynthesis, cyanobacteria stop making hydrogen when oxygen is present. "In the organism we are studying, oxygen interferes with the production of hydrogen by 'gumming up the works,' so to speak," said Ely.

With the grant, Ely and Chaplen hope to develop, via "metabolic engineering," oxygen-tolerant strains of cyanobacteria that can produce hydrogen continuously in the light. After developing sun-harnessing, hydrogen-producing strains, the plan is to grow them by the millions in systems that could also store the generated hydrogen and, using fuel cells, convert it into electricity on demand. They call these proposed systems "solar biohydrogen energy systems."