Plant life likely holds the key to carbon-neutral transportation
Using hydrogen to power vehicles is somewhat controversial. But, if researchers at Australian National University can upscale their new discovery, we could produce hydrogen in a whole new, sustainable way.
Photosynthesis is something you learn about in grade school biology classes. The chemical change within plants containing chlorophyll can turn light energy, water, and carbon dioxide into food, with oxygen as a waste product.
The separating of water into individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms is something plants are programmed to do to sustain themselves. We also use this process, or variations thereof, to produce hydrogen for fuel cells in FCVs.
While plants clean the air, ridding our atmosphere of carbon dioxide as they make food for themselves, our process for producing hydrogen is not nearly as clean. Much of our hydrogen is still produced using fossil fuels.
In an effort to find cleaner ways of producing pure hydrogen, researchers at ANU have attacked the question from a biological view, focusing on a naturally-occurring protein called ferritin, used by living organisms to store iron.
By replacing the iron with manganese, the team first tweaked ferritin to mimic the site in the photosynthetic process that splits water.
To complete the tailoring, the team also used the light-sensitive pigment zinc chlorin to replace a haem group that binds with ferritin (haem is British for heme — think hemoglobin and you’re on the right track).
Initial tests demonstrated that exposing the custom-made ferritin to light resulted in a charge transfer, mimicking the flow of electrons in photosynthesis.
While many companies are spending their R&D dollars on pushing the envelope of battery storage potential, it may be our ability to harness hydrogen production in clean and cheap ways that will make our transportation truly green.