Bacteria catalysts makes hydrogen fuel process cheaper, cleaner sustainable energy

Bacterial catalysts make hydrogen fuel cheaper, cleaner

9:34 AM, 28th October 2013
Making hydrogen easily, cheaply using bacteria catalysts
This hydrogen-generating cluster of iron (brown) and sulfur (yellow) atoms, with side groups of carbon monoxide (gray/red) and cyanide (gray/blue), could be a key to future fuel sources.

CALIFORNIA, US: Making hydrogen easily and cheaply is a dream goal for clean, sustainable energy. Bacteria have been doing exactly that for billions of years, and now chemists at the University of California, Davis, and Stanford University are revealing how they do it, and perhaps opening ways to imitate them.

“It’s pretty interesting that bacteria can do this. We want to know how nature builds these catalysts - from a chemist’s perspective, these are really strange things,” said David Britt, Professor of chemistry, UC Davis.

The bacterial catalysts are based on precisely organized clusters of iron and sulfur atoms, with side groups of cyanide and carbon monoxide. Those molecules are highly toxic unless properly controlled. According to Britt, the cyanide and carbon monoxide groups were known to come from the amino acid tyrosine.

Jon Kuchenreuther, a postdoctoral researcher in Britt’s laboratory, used a technique called electron paramagnetic resonance to study the structure of the intermediate steps. They found a series of chemical reactions involving a type of highly reactive enzyme called a radical SAM enzyme. The tyrosine is attached to a cluster of four iron atoms and four sulfur atoms, then cut loose leaving the cyanide and carbon monoxide groups behind.

“People think of radicals as dangerous, but this enzyme directs the radical chemistry, along with the production of normally poisonous carbon monoxide and cyanide, along safe and productive pathways,” said Britt. Kuchenreuther, Britt and colleagues also used another technique, Fourier Transform Infrared to study how the iron-cyanide-carbon monoxide complex is formed.

“Together, these results show how to make this interesting two-cluster enzyme. This is unique, new chemistry,” said Britt.

 

© University of California, Davis News

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