Berkeley -- A metabolic switch that triggers algae to turn sunlight into large quantities of hydrogen gas, a valuable fuel, is the subject of a new discovery to be presented by University of California, Berkeley, scientists and their Colorado colleagues during a Feb. 21 press briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
"I guess it's the equivalent of striking oil," said UC Berkeley plant and microbial biology professor Tasios Melis. "It was enormously exciting, it was unbelievable." He first described the discovery in the January 2000 issue of the journal Plant Physiology.
Melis and postdoctoral associate Liping Zhang of UC Berkeley made the discovery -- funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Hydrogen Program -- with Dr. Michael Seibert, Dr. Maria Ghirardi and postdoctoral associate Marc Forestier of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado.
Currently, hydrogen fuel is extracted from natural gas, a non-renewable energy source. The new discovery makes it possible to harness nature's own tool, photosynthesis, to produce the promising alternative fuel from sunlight and water. A joint patent on this new technique for capturing solar energy has been taken out by the two institutions.
So far, only small-scale cultures of the microscopic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii have been examined in the laboratory for their hydrogen production capabilities, Melis said.
"In the future, both small-scale industrial and commercial operations and larger utility photobioreactor complexes can be envisioned using this process," he said.
While current production rates are not high enough to make the process immediately viable commercially, the researchers believe that yields could rise by at least 10 fold with further research, someday making the technique an attractive fuel-producing option.