Out of Thin Air
In an exciting turn for the field of sustainable energy research, Australian scientists have found a way to make energy out of thin air. Literally.
As detailed in a new study published this week in the journal Nature, researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia discovered a new bacterial enzyme that transforms the traces of hydrogen in our atmosphere into electricity, technology that could one day be used in fuel cells that power anything from a smartwatch to even a car.
"We've known for some time that bacteria can use the trace hydrogen in the air as a source of energy to help them grow and survive, including in Antarctic soils, volcanic craters, and the deep ocean," said Professor Chris Greening, a contributor to the study, in a statement.
"But we didn't know how they did this," he added, "until now."
The enzyme, dubbed Huc, was extracted from Mycobacterium smegmati, a fairly common — and wildly resilient — soil bacterium. According to the study, it was discovered through a series of advanced molecular-mapping techniques.
"Huc is extraordinarily efficient," said Rhys Grinter, study lead and research fellow at Monash University, in the statement. "Unlike all other known enzymes and chemical catalysts, it even consumes hydrogen below atmospheric levels — as little as 0.00005 percent of the air we breathe."
The researchers used advanced microscopy techniques to first map the bacteria's internal atomic and electric structures, producing "the most resolved enzyme structure reported by this method to date," according to the statement.
Enzyme Fuel Cell
While it's unlikely to turn the sustainable energy industry on its head any time soon, the scientists say Huc is "astonishingly stable" and could one day be used as a tiny, sustainable, bacteria-powered battery for small devices.
"When you provide Huc with more concentrated hydrogen, it produces more electrical current," Grinter told LiveScience. "Which means you could use it in fuel cells to power more complex devices, like smart watches, or smartphones, more portable complex computers, and possibly even a car."
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