Hydrogen from Algae

Genetically modified algae could be efficient producers of hydrogen and biofuels.

Published: 27-Sep-2007

Algae are a promising source of biofuels: besides being easy to grow and handle, some varieties are rich in oil similar to that produced by soybeans. Algae also produce another fuel: hydrogen. They make a small amount of hydrogen naturally during photosynthesis, but Anastasios Melis, a plant- and microbial-biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that genetically engineered versions of the tiny green organisms have a good shot at being a viable source for hydrogen.

Melis has created mutant algae that make better use of sunlight than their natural cousins do. This could increase the hydrogen that the algae produce by a factor of three. It would also boost the algae's production of oil for biofuels.

The new finding will be important in maximizing the production of hydrogen in large-scale, commercial bioreactors. In a laboratory, Melis says, "[we make] low-density cultures and have thin bottles so that light penetrates from all sides." Because of this, the cells use all the light falling on them. But in a commercial bioreactor, where dense algae cultures would be spread out in open ponds under the sun, the top layers of algae absorb all the sunlight but can only use a fraction of it.

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