From The 2020 Group
G L O B A L S I T U A T I O N R E P O R T
Vol.1 No.19 - October 10, 1999 - Part 2
HYDROGEN COULD BE MADE CHEAPLY BY SYNTHETIC ENZYMES
By Michael Lindemann
Growing numbers of energy experts believe that hydrogen may be the ideal fuel of the future. It is extremely abundant and when combusted it delivers high energy and leaves only water as an emission. Clean, powerful, abundant. Perfect.
But here on Earth, not much hydrogen floats around freely. Most of it is locked up in complex hydrocarbon compounds and in water. Breaking water molecules apart to produce hydrogen and oxygen is easy, but not terribly economical -- although solar power has been suggested as a good way to do it on a large scale. Now, however, scientists at the University of Illinois say it may be possible to synthesize an enzyme that does it automatically.
"Nature has already solved the problem by designing numerous
microorganisms that efficiently make or use hydrogen in support of their metabolic activities," says Thomas Rauchfuss, a professor of chemistry and a researcher at the university's materials research laboratory. "If we can fully understand how this natural process works, perhaps we can duplicate it commercially."
About two years ago, the hydrogen-producing enzymes for several microorganisms were isolated, purified and crystallized. "We immediately went to our lab and began efforts to make a look-alike for the natural catalyst," says Rauchfuss. Now he and fellow molecule makers Michael Schmidt and Stephen Contakes have successfully synthesized much of the active site of one so-called hydrogenase enzyme. A paper reporting their findings is scheduled to appear in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Rauchfuss marvels at the components of the hydrogen-producing enzyme, which contains molecules of iron sulphide, carbon monoxide and cyanide. "Nature really designed an amazing structure," Rauchfuss says. "Carbon monoxide and cyanide are poisons. This enzyme is not something you would normally associate with life."
His current synthetic version is much simpler than the natural
variety -- a few dozen atoms compared with several thousand in the original -- and that may be why it doesn't work continuously. "We can get it to spit out some hydrogen, but then it stops for some reason," Rauchfuss admits. But it's a big step in the right direction, and the research continues.