Researchers from the Monash University Biomedicine Discovery Institute in Australia have discovered an enzyme capable of transforming air into energy. The enzyme uses small amounts of hydrogen in the air to generate an electrical current. This discovery could lead to the development of devices that could literally generate energy from thin air.
Recent work by the team has shown that many bacteria use hydrogen from the atmosphere as an energy source in nutrient-poor environments.
“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,” Professor Chris Greening from Monash said. “But we didn’t know how they did this, until now.”
They were able to produce and study a hydrogen-consuming enzyme sourced from a bacterium – Mycobacterium smegmatis – commonly found in soil. They then demonstrated that this enzyme, called Huc, turns hydrogen gas into an electrical current.
“Huc is extraordinarily efficient. Unlike all other known enzymes and chemical catalysts, it even consumes hydrogen below atmospheric levels – as little as 0.00005% of the air we breathe,” stated team lead, Dr. Rhys Grinter.
The researchers used several methods to reveal the molecular blueprint of atmospheric hydrogen oxidation, including advanced microscopy (cryo-EM) to determine its atomic structure, and electrical pathways and electrochemistry to demonstrate that the purified enzyme can create electricity at minute hydrogen concentrations.
Huc is a “natural battery” that produces a sustained electrical current from air or added hydrogen. While the research is still at an early stage, the discovery of Huc has considerable potential to develop small air-powered devices. The bacteria that produce enzymes like Huc are common and can easily be grown in large quantities. Dr. Grinter says that a key objective for future work is to scale up Huc production.
“Once we produce Huc in sufficient quantities, the sky is quite literally the limit for using it to produce clean energy.”