MIT harnesses virus to power up the hydrogen economy - R. Colin Johnson

MIT harnesses virus to power up the hydrogen economy

May 25, 2010 - R. Colin Johnson -

PORTLAND, Ore. — The hydrogen economy was supposed to use solar power to transform water into hydrogen fuel, but it has lagged expectations because no method more efficient than electrolysis has been found to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Now, by harnessing living viruses to mimic the way plants use photosynthesis, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims to extract fuel more efficiently from water.

A team led by MIT professor Angela Belcher genetically engineered the virus, called M13, to act as a scaffold on which to mount the nanoscale components needed to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Two components—iridium oxide, used as a catalyst, and a biological pigment called zinc porphyrins—self-assembled on the virus-built frame to form what MIT claims is an efficient solar engine for splitting the oxygen from the hydrogen in water molecules, with the pigment absorbing photons and with the catalyst channeling the energy into splitting the water molecule.

For longevity, the team encapsulated its solar engine in a microgel matrix that maintains long-term stability and efficiency, according to MIT.

Others have tried similar approaches without the virus, but MIT claims the virus scaffold increases efficiency fourfold, moving the technique closer to commercial feasibility.

Much of the work was performed by MIT doctoral candidate Yoon Sung Nam, with contributions from professor Thomas Mallouk at Pennsylvania State University. Italian energy company Eni and the MIT Energy Initiative provided funding.