Macquarie University researchers have teamed up with BOC Australia and Bioplatforms Australia to genetically engineer bacteria that turn sugar into hydrogen (H2).

The project has received a $1.1m grant from ARENA, the Australian Government’s Renewable Energy Agency. The three-year grant from ARENA is being matched by an additional $1.7m in further funding and in-kind support for the research.

“There’s global interest in using H2 gas to produce electricity in H2 fuel cells, for example to power vehicles, heat buildings or provide electricity for industry,” said Professor Robert Willows, who is one of the project leaders. “It’s a clean and efficient energy source.”

While 95% of the H2 used worldwide currently is produced from fossil fuels, increasingly people are looking at how to produce H2 from renewables.

“A lot of recent research efforts are focused on using electrolysis to produce H2 by splitting water molecules into oxygen (O2) and H2,” explained Dr. Louise Brown, co-leader of the project. “They’re doing this by using electricity generated from solar and wind.” 

“Other people are taking a biological route, and tweaking photosynthesis in algae to produce H2.”

“We think we can use genetically engineered bacteria—in our case E. coli—which will be able to eat glucose produced from renewable sources likes sugar cane and cereals. We’ll also be looking at other low-cost carbohydrate feedstocks as well.”

Willows continued, “The aim of our project is to design a system that produces H2 relatively rapidly and at yields that are commercially viable. The bacterial approach has many advantages over H2 from algae, including that it doesn’t need large open ponds.”

The team is planning to scale up from their current, small lab set-up. This will allow them to test the safety and efficacy of their process as they work towards commercialising the technology.

“Even in the lab we can produce enough H2 in a day from a few spoonfuls of sugar, to produce enough energy to charge your mobile phone for up to two weeks,” said Willows.

“BOC is committed to supporting Australian research and development into the production and use of cleaner gaseous fuels for mobility and energy. Renewable H2 is a fuel of the future, and we are proud to share our global expertise with researchers from Macquarie University as they enter this next phase of technology development,” said Alex Dronoff, BOC’s General Manager of H2 and LNG.

“The team will be able to use our research infrastructure to better understand the changes they’re making to the genes, proteins and metabolism of the bacteria they’re engineering,” added Andrew Gilbert, General Manager of Bioplatforms Australia. “We are delighted to support this valuable project that showcases clever science to innovatively produce H2.”

“As the economy decarbonises, alternative clean and carbon neutral sources of energy, like H2, will be essential,” commented Professor Barbara Messerle, the Executive Dean of Science and Engineering at Macquarie University. “The project takes an innovative approach to how we might sustainably and efficiently produce the H2 to both meet our future power needs and potentially export abroad.”