Penn State researchers have discovered a low-energy way to harvest hydrogen fuel that may offer a limitless supply of the clean-burning power source. Hydrogen is a dream fuel that was not so long ago touted as the best alternative to a fossil fuel powered society. It holds more stored energy than any fossil fuel, such as coal, natural gas or oil, and its byproduct isn’t poisonous carbon monoxide or dioxide, but rather chemically pure water. The only problem in propagating this miracle fuel is that, since hydrogen does not naturally occur on earth, it has traditionally required excessive energy to generate the fuel through means such as electrolysis, where an electrical current is passed through water to break apart oxygen and hydrogen molecules. The Penn State researchers, however, may have found the answer, and it lies in bacteria.
Bacteria have been a cornerstone in the quest for alternative fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, yet few have examined the possibility of bacterial hydrogen generation. But in 2009, researchers discovered a special strain of bacteria that splits water molecules. The only problem is that the bacteria need a small electrical charge to activate, again requiring excess energy to produce energy. But the Penn State team led by professor of environmental engineering Bruce E. Logan has found a way to excite the bacteria using an electrochemical reaction between saltwater and freshwater.