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New 'Nano-Reactor' May Create Hydrogen Biofuel for the Future of Renewable Energy

First Posted: Jan 05, 2016 12:59 PM EST

Scientists may have created a nano-reactor that can produce hydrogen fuel. By combining bacterial genes, researchers have developed a virus shell that creates a highly efficient, renewable material used in generating power from water.

"Essentially we've taken a virus's ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas," said Trevor Douglas, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen."

The new material is a modified enzyme that gains strength from being protected within the protein shell, or "capsid" of a bacterial virus. It's actually 150 times more efficient than the unaltered form of the enzyme.

But how did the researchers make it in the first place? The genetic material used to create the enzyme, hydrogenase, is produced by two genes from the common bacteria Escherichia coli. It's inserted inside the protective capsid that comes from the bacterial virus known as bacteriophage P22.

"This material is comparable to platinum, except it's truly renewable," said Douglas. "You don't need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it's biodegradable. It's a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material."

The biomaterial, called P22-Hyd, both breaks the chemical bonds of water to create hydrogen and also works in reverse to recombine hydrogen and oxygen to generate power. The reaction runs both ways, which means it can be used as either a hydrogen production catalyst or as a fuel cell catalyst.

The findings could be huge for the future of hydrogen fuel, and for the future of renewable energy.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

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