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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp attends the Class of 1972 50-year reunion in Kyle Field on April 20, 2022.
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The Battalion May 4, 2024

Fuel for the future

Sometimes solutions can be found in the mostly unlikely places.
Imagine a world that no longer purchases oil from hostile countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East to power automobiles and heat homes, but instead replaces oil with hydrogen fuel produced by trillions of microscopic bacteria.
Texas A&M Professor Thomas Wood says that this world is entirely possible because he and his research team have successfully genetically manipulated Escherichia coli to produce hydrogen fuel from common sugar.
E. coli is commonly associated with food poisoning from uncooked meat, but the bacteria is also found naturally in the human body. Wood said that the average person has eight kilograms (17.6 pounds) of bacteria in their body at any given time. This bacteria naturally produces hydrogen to increase the pH of its surroundings for survival.
Wood has spent the previous 17 years manipulating the bacteria to do different things. “Many people think that engineered bacteria will take over the world, but they will not,” Wood said.
E. coli has been used for many applications, from environmental cleanup to synthesizing indigo dye for blue jeans, and now E. coli has been made to generate hydrogen fuel.
Wood said that he was hooked on researching hydrogen two years ago. The biotechnology research community has only been pursuing research in hydrogen production from bacteria for the past five years; all of these major breakthroughs have come about in a relatively short period of time.
Wood said that his research group initially started out with the wrong assumptions, but once the research settled its focus on E. coli, progress began moving along rapidly.
“We have used a process called DNA shuffling, in which we separate and re-splice E. coli genes in random sequences. We eventually found a combination which produced more hydrogen,” Wood said. “I have made so many mistakes in my life, I thought this time I should make a living out of it.”
Wood’s Texas A&M research team is the first to have successfully manipulated any bacteria to produce a usable amount of hydrogen. He credited his graduate students, Toshinari Maeda and Viviana Sanchez-Torres for this success, because he would never have been able to solve these problems alone.
“We have created a quintuple mutant…these five mutations have enhanced hydrogen production from formate 141-fold and have achieved the theoretical hydrogen yield (1 mol H2 / mol formate.) In addition, we have created a septuple mutant that increased hydrogen yield fivefold from glucose and improved hydrogen yield twofold from .65 to 1.3 mol H2 / mol glucose,” stated Maeda, Sanchez-Torres and Wood In their journal article which was accepted Feb. 12.
With today’s technology, Wood said that a filing cabinet-sized unit full of bacteria and sugar could be used to produce 1 kWh of power, enough to run a home with an operating cost of $6,000.
“Glucose has 12 hydrogens, and we are able to capture two to four of those,” Wood said. He is sure that his research team can make the process even more efficient.
Wood said he envisions a car engine which houses bacteria to convert glucose to hydrogen for fuel cells. Could Americans one day drive a car which re-fuels with sugar instead of gasoline, and emits water instead of greenhouse gasses? Wood said he thinks so.
“This is very exciting research,” she said, “right now we are starting to see progress and this technology could be very important for the future. It is good for the environment,” said Sanchez-Torres, who has been working with Wood for two years.
Hydrogen fuel is expensive to transport as well, added Andrea Gaizon Sanabria, a Chemical Engineering graduate student who has been working with Wood for six months. The U.S. currently has no infrastructure to support hydrogen, she said
“The advantage of this technology with E. coli is that the hydrogen can be produced where it is needed.”
Wood’s research group of seven graduate students continues to make the process more efficient and increase the hydrogen production rate hoping to make Wood’s hydrogen energy future a reality.

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