Hydrogen from Microscopic Algae Fuels Cars

By Robert C. Cowen, | The Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 2000 | Go to article overview

Hydrogen from Microscopic Algae Fuels Cars


Robert C. Cowen,, The Christian Science Monitor


If hydrogen is the fuel of the future, Tasios Melis says he thinks he has struck oil. His research team has discovered how to turn on a microscopic algae's ability to photosynthesize hydrogen big time. If they now can boost that hydrogen production tenfold, as calculations predict they can, Dr. Melis says they will have a commercial-scale experiment running.

Scientists have studied algae hydrogen production for many years. However, the tendency of the process to shut itself down has frustrated their efforts. That's why Melis calls his new ability to turn the process on and keep it running a major "breakthrough."

To emphasize its long-range promise, he estimates that a commercial operation based on this discovery could supply the fuel for about a dozen cars from a small pond full of green scum and water. But right now, the importance of the work pursued by Melis's University of California team in Berkeley and by partners at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., is that it opens up another line of research that could lead to a future hydrogen fuel economy.

Margaret Mann at the Golden laboratory explains that hydrogen could solve "a lot of the global climate change problem we have with fossil fuels [as well as] the air pollution." Fuel cells that "burn" hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity produce only water as their waste product. Generating the hydrogen from sunlight and water would put that energy economy on a renewable basis.

When Melis described his breakthrough during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last month in Washington, D.C. Dr. Mann noted that scientists know how to produce hydrogen with the help of solar cells. The cells generate electricity that, in turn, splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Now, she says, scientists have "a new technology" to explore.

Meanwhile, the search is on for other organisms that can photosynthesize this useful gas. For example, Tadashi Matsunaga from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology in Japan told the Washington meeting that his group is finding marine microorganisms that can produce various useful products. …

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