Recreating Nature’s Machinery for Making Hydrogen Gas

David Britt’s lab works to understand the enzymes that allow living things to split water and make hydrogen.

Research from the University of Illinois and UC Davis has chemists one step closer to recreating nature’s most efficient machinery for generating hydrogen gas. This new development may help clear the path for the hydrogen fuel industry to move into a larger role in the global push toward more environmentally friendly energy sources. 

The researchers reported their findings Oct. 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Currently, hydrogen gas is produced using a very complex industrial process that limits its attractiveness to the green fuel market, the researchers said. In response, scientists are looking toward biologically synthesized hydrogen, which is far more efficient than the current human-made process, said UIUC chemistry professor and study co-author Thomas Rauchfuss.

UC Davis collaborator on the project is R. David Britt. His EPR spectroscopy lab at the Department of Chemistry has been working for several years to understand the enzymes that split water to produce hydrogen.

Biological enzymes, called hydrogenases, are nature’s machinery for making and burning hydrogen gas. These enzymes come in two varieties, iron-iron and nickel-iron – named for the elements responsible for driving the chemical reactions. The new study focuses on the iron-iron variety because it does the job faster, the researchers said.

Read more about this research and what it means for clean energy.

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