Devices that generate energy from thin air could become a reality, scientists say, thanks to a newly discovered enzyme that converts hydrogen gas into electricity.
The finding follows recent research by the same Australian team, which showed that many bacteria absorb hydrogen from the atmosphere as an energy source.
This is common in nutrient-poor environments such as the deep ocean, volcanic vents and Antarctic soils.
It’s a common soil bacterium, Mycobacterium smegmatis, that forms the basis of the new study.
The scientists extracted the enzyme responsible for converting hydrogen into energy from bacteria and studied it to determine how it works.
The enzyme, called Huc, was found to convert gas into electricity, like a “natural battery.”
The enzyme also has the potential for long-term storage, requires only trace amounts of hydrogen to generate electricity, and the bacteria that produce it can multiply in large numbers.
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The team at Melbourne’s Monash University describe it as “very efficient”.
Ashleigh Kropp, a doctoral student involved in the study, said: “It’s very stable.
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“The enzyme can be frozen or heated to 80 degrees Celsius and it still retains the ability to generate energy.
“This reflects the enzyme’s ability to help bacteria survive in the most extreme environments.”
Huc is considered as a potential energy source for small electronic devices, providing an ultra-clean and sustainable form of energy.
The key goal now is to figure out how best to scale up production.
Dr Rhys Grinter added: “Once we produce Huc in sufficient quantities, the sky is the limit for using it to produce clean energy.”