Stanford project mixes Darwin with hydrogen

Can a microorganism help people create better cars? It may depend on how the bugs emerge from a selective breeding program.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
PALO ALTO, Calif.--A research project at Stanford University is trying to determine whether survival of the fittest can help humanity build better cars.

Researchers at the university, led by chemical engineering professor James Swartz, have discovered a soil microorganism that absorbs photons and subsequently metabolizes the energy to split water, a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen, Jim Plummer, Stanford's dean of engineering, said during a presentation at the AlwaysOn conference taking place at the university this week.

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"Instead of using it (the energy from sunlight) to grow, it uses it to split water molecules," Plummer said.

Unfortunately, the microorganism in its natural state is anaerobic, which means it dies when exposed to large concentrations of oxygen.

To get around this problem, the researchers produce millions of the bugs and expose them to a low concentration of oxygen. They then take the ones that survive and use them to parent a new generation of bugs.

The idea is to, over time, create a new race of bugs that can survive in a relatively normal environment. Entire generations of bugs can be produced fairly rapidly, but wholesale changes in the genetic code do take time.

Although it's the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen isn't easy to harvest here on Earth. It can be extracted from coal, but the reaction leaves carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Water molecules can also be split through electrolysis, but that requires energy. Signa Chemistry in New York recently revealed a way to produce hydrogen by better controlling the normally explosive reaction of sodium and water.

Hydrogen is seen as a potential fuel source for cars, among other applications.

The Stanford project began three years ago with $50,000 from the university but has since attracted major corporate funding, Plummer said. He also acknowledged that there are ethical questions, along with the potential for unintended consequences, with this sort of research.

Plummer--along with Alice Gast, vice president of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--spoke during a roundtable Thursday that focused in part on alternative energy.

"Despite the current price of oil, it is a long-term problem," Gast said.

Plummer, who has been one of the more vocal proponents in academia about alternative energy, asserted that the government also needs to do more to set energy policy and fund research.

If the project with the microorganisms works out, it could solve one of the vexing problems facing the so-called hydrogen economy.

Gast and Plummer also shed light on other projects going on at their universities.

A number of researchers at MIT are delving into the problem of quantum computing, which essentially involves generating 0s and 1s by changing (and tracking) the energy state of electrons.

At Stanford, some researchers are working on a GPS-like device with an atomic clock that potentially could be accurate up to a millimeter. Now, GPS, or Global Positioning System, technology is accurate to within a few meters.