The Global View

Could a New Zealand bacterium foster a hydrogen economy?

How could a bacterium discovered in a New Zealand hot spring pave the way for a clean-energy, hydrogen-based economy? Researchers in Sweden think they might have found the answer.

Caldicellulosiruptor saccharolyticus has more than a tongue-twisting name; it also has the ability to pump out twice as much hydrogen gas as other bacteria currently used in biogas production. That novel skill could potentially help make hydrogen production more energy- and cost-effective than it is today, making a hydrogen-fueled future more of a possibility.

Current hydrogen supplies are produced mostly by the steam reforming of natural gas (methane), or by electrolysis, a process that typically requires the use of fossil fuels. That leaves hydrogen less than appealing from a sustainability or clean-energy perspective.

On the other hand, if a bacterium like Caldicellulosiruptor saccharolyticus could be used generate large quantities of hydrogen gas — by breaking down the carbohydrates in plant waste — that drawback could be eliminated.

“If hydrogen gas is produced from biomass, there is no addition of carbon dioxide because the carbon dioxide formed in the production is the same that is absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants being used,” said Karin Willquist, a doctoral student in applied microbiology at Sweden’s Lund University who will soon be presenting a thesis on the subject. “Bio-hydrogen gas will probably complement biogas in the future.”