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Is bacteria the key to making limitless energy from thin air?

Scientists have been studying a form of bacteria able to scavenge atmospheric hydrogen from thin air. They believe applying this principle to new technology could help humanity create limitless energy.

As the world continues to negligently burn through fossil fuels, science is frantically searching for sustainable ways to power civilisation. Far-fetched as it may sound, we could generate limitless energy from thin air, literally.

An Australian research team from Monash University has been looking into the wondrous ways of bacteria and how they obtain energy. Their encouraging findings were outlined in a recent edition of the journal Nature.

The source of obsession for this research team is called Huc, an enzyme made by forms of bacteria which helps them survive within soil, the ocean, volcanic craters, and icy plains like Antarctica.

Science has long known about the enzyme, and that is essentially operates as a hydrogen scavenger – pulling traces of the meagre gas from the air to create a small electric current. Only after this study, however, have we gleaned solid insight into how.

Credit: Alina Kurokhtina

Studying cultivated bacteria in a laboratory, team researcher Ashleigh Kropp discovered a key component within Huc that we never knew existed. The chosen bacterium for observation was Mycobacterium Smegmatis, as it’s easily obtainable from soil and is well-studied as a model organism for tuberculosis.

Kropp managed to narrow down a specific gene within the enzyme responsible for sequestering atmospheric hydrogen. ‘Huc forms a large complex, and when we remove it Huc doesn’t form that large complex anymore. It turns out that this component and the complex is really important for how Huc functions in the cells,’ he explained.

Even when isolated from the bacteria, the sample of Huc consumed hydrogen at concentrations far lower than tiny traces in the air. The team also found that it hoovered up specs of hydrogen too faint to be detected by specialist gas chromatographs.

Initially, you may think this is something a select few specialists would be excited by, but the ramifications of this milestone are potentially huge. Bacteria remove a staggering 70 million tonnes of hydrogen yearly from the atmosphere in a process that literally shapes the composition of the air we breathe.

Credit: Dr Rhys Grinter

That means that not only could these findings play a significant role in forming modern energy infrastructure without fossil fuels, but also potentially in shaping climate models for future generations.

‘Understanding the biochemistry of this process may allow us to harness it to stabilise our climate in the future,’ says team research leader Dr Rhys Grinter.

In the more immediate future, scaling up Huc quantities from milligrams to kilograms will be the key objective. Over time, this emerging from of ‘natural battery’ could be used to power small electric devices with no manual power supply, and – in the context of an expected hydrogen boom – potentially entire facilities.

‘Once we produce Huc in sufficient quantities,’ Dr Grinter says, ‘the sky is quite literally the limit for using it to produce clean energy.’