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I2SysBio leads a European project to obtain green hydrogen from bacteria

  • Parc Científic
  • January 10th, 2023
Alfonso Jaramillo
Alfonso Jaramillo

This is an EIC Pathfinder project endowed with more than 4 million euros to get some genetically modified bacteria to produce hydrogen using non-potable water. The project is led by the Institute for Integrative Systems Biology (I2SysBio, UV-CSIC) and has the participation of scientists and companies from Sweden, Portugal, Italy, and the Netherlands.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element on Earth. However, it is not found alone on the planet, but combined to form water or hydrocarbons such as natural gas. The latter is the main source of the hydrogen used today as fuel, but the process generates pollutants. The challenge is to obtain ‘green’ hydrogen, whose production is clean. Thus, a team from the Institute for Integrative Systems Biology (I2SysBio), a joint centre of the University of Valencia (UV) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), has started a project to prove that genetically modified bacteria are capable of producing Hydrogen, from sea and residual water, with the same efficiency as other non-polluting processes.

Green hydrogen is one of the key vectors for the decarbonisation of the planet. At present it is obtained by electrolysis of water, by separating its components by means of an electric current produced by solar energy. However, of the 70 million tons of hydrogen that are consumed, less than 1% is obtained in this way. Most of the hydrogen consumed is ‘grey’, produced from natural gas and generates 830 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.

In this context, the I2SysBio De Novo Synthetic Biology team, led by the scientist Alfonso Jaramillo Rosales, has just started a research project funded with 4.2 million euros by the European Innovation Council (EIC) within the Pathfinder program, which supports the exploration of bold ideas for new technologies. With it, he intends to provide a different solution to the production of green hydrogen using the mechanism that sustains life on the planet: photosynthesis. “The idea is to design new genes in bacteria to transform solar energy into hydrogen, something that does not happen in nature”, explains Jaramillo.

“Our solution is based on redesigning the genes of photosynthesis in the most studied photosynthetic bacteria (Synechocystis) so that they are capable of creating an anaerobic environment suitable for the production of hydrogen with hydrogenases from algae”, reveals Jaramillo. “This requires both introducing the hydrogenase genes from algae and modifying existing genes from bacteria to minimise electrons going to metabolism. In addition, genes are added to these bacteria that will allow them to tolerate salty and residual water, so we do not use drinking water in the process”, highlights the scientist.

Cheapest method to obtain green hydrogen

The objective of the project is also to build an industrial plant for a new type of solar panels consisting of bioreactors with 1,500 litres of water, housing the genetically modified bacteria. The project, which will last 5 years from October 2022, has the collaboration of researchers from the University of Uppsala (Sweden), Porto (Portugal) and the National Research Council (CNR) of Florence (Italy). Companies from the Netherlands and Naples are also participating, where the bioreactors will be manufactured.

The team intends to develop a technology capable of matching the cost of producing green hydrogen by the current method of electrolysis of water using photovoltaic solar panels. In his opinion, this system of bioreactors with genetically modified bacteria will be another competitive way to generate green hydrogen, scalable and at a lower cost, up to 10 times less than the methods used today.

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