Friendly Water-Splitting Virus May Be Key to Hydrogen Fuel

Currently, the race is on to figure out how to do what plants do: use solar energy to split oxygen from hydrogen in water. Why? Because hydrogen is clean, abundant and combustible, unlike gas or coal. Researchers at MIT are working on a novel solution to the problem by using viruses to split water.

The team, led by Angela Belcher, the Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering at MIT, has engineered a common, harmless bacterial virus known as M13 so it attracts and binds with molecules of a catalyst (in this case, iridium oxide) and a biological pigment (zinc porphyrins). This apparently turns the viruses into “wire-like devices” that can split the oxygen from water molecules in an efficient way, using the modified virus as a kind of biological scaffold that can assemble the nanoscale components and produce those highly sought-after hydrogen atoms.


image via MIT

Beyond fueling the hydrogen economy, this type of technology also holds promise for overcoming the Achilles tendon of solar (and other weather-based energy systems): variability and storage. When the sun shines, it could be used to split water molecules, so that when the clouds come out and block those rays, the hydrogen generated on sunny days can still be used to generate electricity.

Susan DeFreitas has covered all manner of green technology for EarthTechling since 2009. She is a graduate of Prescott College for the Liberal Arts and the Environment, and has a background in marketing green businesses. Her work on green living has been featured in Yes! Magazine, the Utne Reader and Natural Home.

    • Should I point out that Iridium is one of the rarest elements on earth and possibly in the solar system? Our supply of it on earth comes almost exclusively from meteor/asteroid impacts, most of which that we can harvest comes from the impact that killed the dinosaurs! How does she propose we save the world with hydrogen when the cost of the catalyst makes pure titanium a cheaper fuel source?