Scientists were able to modify an enzyme and incorporate it into a bacteriophage capsid to generate hydrogen from water for use as a potential source of fuel
WATER AS FUEL

Around 70% of the Earth is covered by water. A majority of the human body is also composed of water. The simple compound is one of the most abundant in the world, so being able to harness it as fuel would be an economic and industrial dream.

Hydrogen and oxygen, the two elements that compose H2O, have been sought after as a raw fuel source in hybrid technology (for creating things like hybrid vehicles). Now, at Indiana University, scientists are trying to achieve just that: Water as a fuel source.

There, scientists have created highly efficient biomaterial that catalyzes the formation of hydrogen by splitting water for fueling cheap and efficient cars that run on water. A modified enzyme that gains strength from being protected within the capsid (a protein casing or shell) of a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria).

Ultimately, this new material is 150 times more efficient than the unaltered form of the enzyme.

The virus’s ability to self-assemble a diverse range of genetic building blocks was used and biochemically modified to make it incorporate a fragile and sensitive enzyme with the property of taking in protons (hydrogen cations) and releasing hydrogen gas.

P22-HYD
1-iuscientists
Source: Indiana University. Illustration showing the release of NiFe-hydrogenase from inside the virus capsid of bacteriophage P22.

Hydrogenase, specifically NiFe-hydrogenase  was the enzyme used. The genetic material used to create it is produced by two genes, hyaA and hyaB, from the common bacterium Escherichia coli. They encode key subunits of the hydrogenase enzyme. These are inserted inside the protective capsid. The capsid comes from the bacterial virus known as bacteriophage P22.

The resulting biomaterial is called “P22-Hyd,” and it is more efficient than the unaltered enzyme.

It is also conveniently produced through a simple fermentation process at room temperature. The material is potentially far less expensive and more environmentally friendly to produce than other materials currently used to create fuel cells. Moreover, P22-Hyd not only breaks the chemical bonds of water to create hydrogen, it also works in reverse to recombine hydrogen and oxygen to generate power.

The next steps for the research team is to incorporate the material into solar-powered systems. Thus, the future of sustainable energy is looking rather bright.

PUTTING BACTERIA INSIDE A VIRUS SHELL:

Scientists may have found a cheap and clean method in developing a hydrogen biofuel by using a “virus shell.”
NANO-REACTOR

Indiana University scientists have managed to create biomaterial that can catalyze the formation of hydrogen. This discovery marks a big step towards the goal of splitting H20 to create hydrogen and oxygen to fuel cheap and efficient cars that can, essentially, run on water.

Using a modified enzyme that gains strength as it stays protected within its capsid—a protective shell—the new material then becomes 150 times more efficient. Details of the study have been published in the journal, Nature Chemistry.

Trevor Douglas
Example rendition. Credit: Trevor Douglas

In the release, scientists clarify exactly what this new breakthrough entails: “Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas,” said Trevor Douglas, the Earl Blough Professor of Chemistry in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, who led the study.

“The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the
production of hydrogen.”

HYDROGEN BIOFUEL

The resulting biomaterial, called P22-Hyd, is said to not only be more efficient—it can also easily be produced using a simple fermentation process, and it can all be done at room temperature.

This makes it significantly less expensive to produce, and it has a lower impact on the environment than any other material that is currently being used to create fuel cells. For instance, platinum, one of the rarest and most expensive metals, is used to catalyze hydrogen as fuel used in high-end concept cars.

Douglas notes the difference, saying, “This material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable. He continues, “you don’t need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it’s biodegradable. It’s a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material.”

The discovery opens possibilities for the production of green and clean fuels that can address the energy problem that the world faces today.

OVERALL:

Scientists have modified a virus to catalyze the formation of hydrogen from water resulting in a more efficient biomaterial and improved hydrogen production.
IMPROVING ON HYDROGEN PRODUCTION

Indiana University scientists have created a “nano-reactor” by modifying a virus to protect and encapsulate an enzyme that breaks down H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. The results of this process, which were published in the journal Nature Chemistry, demonstrate that the enzyme is strengthened by this protection, making it 150 times more efficient than its unaltered form.

Trevor Douglas MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.
Trevor Douglas MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

“Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas,” said Trevor Douglas, who led the study, in the IU Bloomington press release. “The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen.”

The biomaterial, named “P22-Hyd”, combines the capsid or the protein shell of a virus known as bacteriophage P22 and the enzyme NiFe hydrogenase.

The enzyme is produced by combining the genes hyaA and hyaB in the common bacteria Escherichia coli. It is produced through a simple fermentation process at room temperature that can prove to be far more environmentally friendly and less costly compared to other catalyst materials like platinum.

Unlike its unaltered form, P22-Hyd is capable of resisting degradation from chemicals in the environment and is able to act as a hydrogen production catalyst or as a fuel cell catalyst depending on the circumstances. These qualities allows its potential use in manufacturing and hydrogen fuel cells in cars.

ACCELERATING RENEWABLE SOURCES

Considering that automobile makers are now shifting away for gasoline and diesel to renewable sources such as hydrogen fuel or electric batteries, this could be great benefit.

The resulting biomaterial, called P22-Hyd, is said to not only be more efficient—it can also easily be produced using a simple fermentation process, and it can all be done at room temperature. Douglas notes the difference, saying, “This material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable. He continues, “you don’t need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it’s biodegradable. It’s a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material.”

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