Latest Breakthrough: An Enzyme That Turns Air Into Electricity
A group of scientists from various countries has identified an enzyme capable of generating electrical energy by converting the hydrogen in the air into a small amount of energy.
This breakthrough research, published in the journal: Nature, can revolutionize how we generate and store energy, opening up a new era of sustainable power generation.
The scientists discovered the enzyme called FdhAB in the bacterium Paracoccus denitrificans.
This microbe is known for its ability to convert nitrogen compounds in the atmosphere into usable forms for plants and other organisms.
Scientists discover an enzyme that turns air into ELECTRICITY https://t.co/W4523Ehilu
— Daily Mail Online (@MailOnline) March 8, 2023
How Does this Enzyme Generate Electricity?
Researchers found that FdhAB could also catalyze the conversion of atmospheric oxygen into electrical current. This process, known as microbial respiration, involves the transfer of electrons from one molecule to another, generating electricity.
The researchers found that FdhAB was highly efficient at this process, producing a current density of up to 0.5 milliamps per square centimeter — comparable to some of the best synthetic catalysts currently available.
A study by the team revealed that numerous bacteria rely on atmospheric hydrogen to generate energy in environments where nutrients are scarce.
Professor Chris Greening from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (Monash BDI) co-led the research.
He said, “We’ve known for some time that bacteria can use trace hydrogen in the air as an energy source to help them survive. This includes Antarctic soils, volcanic craters, and the deep ocean. But we did not know how they did this until now.”
“Newly discovered enzyme that turns air into electricity, providing a new clean source of energy”
This is a landmark discovery that will produce “free” electricity via biological pathways.https://t.co/VXCbgHnyOR
— Brian Roemmele (@BrianRoemmele) March 8, 2023
The enzyme accountable for utilizing atmospheric hydrogen came from Mycobacterium smegmatis bacterium. The researchers demonstrated that this enzyme, called Huc, converts hydrogen gas into an electric current.
Research co-leader Dr. Rhys Grinter from Monash BDI explained, “Huc is extraordinarily efficient. Unlike all other known chemical catalysts and enzymes, it consumes hydrogen below atmospheric levels — as little as 0.00005% of the air we breathe.”
How They Conducted the Research
The researchers employed various cutting-edge techniques to uncover the molecular mechanism of atmospheric hydrogen oxidation.
By utilizing advanced microscopy (cryo-EM), they could decipher its atomic structure and electrical pathways, breaking new ground to generate the most detailed enzyme structure yet reported through this approach.
Additionally, they employed electrochemistry to exhibit that the purified enzyme can generate electricity even at extremely low hydrogen concentrations.
Ashleigh Kropp, a Ph.D. student at Monash, conducted laboratory experiments. She demonstrated that she could purify Huc and store it for extended periods.
She observed that the enzyme is remarkably stable; it can be frozen or exposed to temperatures as high as 80 °C without losing its capacity to generate energy. This underscores the role of Huc in enabling bacteria to thrive in the most extreme environments.
Huc can be regarded as a “natural battery” that produces a steady electric current using air or supplemented hydrogen.
Although this research is in its preliminary stages, the discovery of Huc holds significant potential for developing small, air-powered devices as an alternative to solar-powered ones.
Furthermore, the bacteria that produce enzymes like Huc are prevalent, and experts can cultivate them in large quantities. Which can then provide a renewable enzyme source.
Grinter expressed that a crucial goal for future research is to increase the production of Huc.
“If we can produce sufficient amounts of Huc, the possibilities for generating clean energy are limitless,” he concluded.
How We Can Apply it in the Future
This technology has a vast potential application, from powering small electronic devices to providing energy for entire communities.
One of the most exciting possibilities is the development of bio-electrochemical systems (BES). The system uses microbes to generate electricity from organic matter.
Some are already using these systems in wastewater treatment plants. However, adding FdhAB could significantly enhance their efficiency and sustainability.
Another potential application is in the field of energy storage. One of the main challenges of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power is their intermittent nature. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow.
Energy storage technologies are essential for overcoming this challenge, allowing excess energy for storage in future use.
FdhAB could provide a new way of storing energy by using excess electricity to convert atmospheric oxygen into a chemical form. It could be stored and later used to generate electricity on demand.
The discovery of FdhAB and its ability to turn air into electricity represents a breakthrough in renewable energy. This enzyme can potentially revolutionize how we generate and store energy.
Soon it will provide a sustainable and scalable solution to our growing energy needs.
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