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Photo: Hydrogen fueling station for vehicles.
Researchers are now identifying nitrogen-fixing bacteria that release all of the hydrogen the microbes produce, which could lead to a new hydrogen source for fuel cells. Photo courtesy of Department of Energy.

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Hydrogen-Producing Bacteria Provide Clean Energy

By Rosalie Marion Bliss
August 25, 2008

A new "green" technology developed cooperatively by scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and North Carolina State University (NC State) could lead to production of hydrogen from nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Renewable sources of energy—such as hydrogen—that don't produce pollutants or greenhouse gases are needed to solve global energy shortages. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are nonrenewable energy sources implicated in global warming.

The invention holds promise as a source of hydrogen for use in fuel cell technology. Fuel cell devices combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water, and are considered efficient, quiet and pollution-free. Fuel cells are now being tested in a range of products, including automobiles that release no emissions other than water vapor.

ARS inventors Paul Bishop and Telisa Loveless and NC State inventors Jonathan Olson and José Bruno-Bárcena developed the patent-pending technology.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria play a key role in agriculture. They live in soil and on certain plant roots, and convert nitrogen from the air into a chemical form that plants can use to grow. The researchers developed a way to identify strains of these bacteria that produce hydrogen gas.

Bishop first demonstrated novel aspects of bacterial nitrogen-fixing more than two decades ago. Building on that work, the team developed a method that uses a selecting agent to identify these special hydrogen-producing strains. The selecting agent allows researchers to identify these bacterial strains without the need for genomic sequencing or genetic modification.

Using the selecting agent, the inventors identified a gene that inactivates the bacteria's hydrogen uptake system so that all of the hydrogen produced is released. Because the bacterial cells cannot recycle the hydrogen, the hydrogen they produce can be captured and used as a fuel whose byproduct is water and heat.

Licensing information can be obtained by contacting the ARS Office of Technology Transfer or the Office of Technology Transfer at NC State.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.