Can a gene turn water into energy?

Trent Nguyen says he's sitting on one powerful gene.

Nguyen, CEO of Genexinh, says his company has discovered a gene that produces a protein that can split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The electron can subsequently be stripped from the hydrogen molecules. In other words, it's a gene that can make electricity with very little energy and expense.

One of the big knocks against using hydrogen as a fuel source is the cost and energy required to produce it. Currently, manufacturers mix methane and oxygen at high temperatures. For every 1 kilogram of hydrogen produced, the reaction also creates 9.2 kilograms of CO2, a greenhouse gas. (Storing and transporting hydrogen are problems too.)

Using a protein as a catalyst and water as a feedstock for hydrogen would be a lot cheaper, Nguyen said. The reaction takes place at around 45 degrees Celsius, lower than the 815 degrees Celsius required when hydrocarbons are used.

"Let them (cells) do it for free," he said. The company wants to develop a fuel cell that can power small electrical devices.

Nguyen, however, holds his cards close to his chest. He won't identify the organism with the gene, what the gene does in the organism, or other details. However, he did say that the gene could be spliced and put into host cells from mammals or microbes. This would make mass production of the protein easier.

Still, scientists are finding an incredible array of genes. Stanford professor Jim Swartz has helped isolate a microorganism that absorbs sunlight and splits water.

Genexinh is currently applying for patents and seeking venture capital funding. And if it fails, who knows, he'd make a great Batman villain. Give me $1 billion dollars or I'll vaporize the water supply of Gotham.

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About the author

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

     

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