Scientists discover an enzyme that turns air into electricity, providing a new clean source of energy

PhD student Ashleigh Kropp, left, and Dr Rhys Grinter.

Australian scientists have discovered an enzyme that converts air into energy. The finding, published today, in the top journal Nature, reveals that this enzyme uses the low amounts of hydrogen in the atmosphere to create an electrical current. This finding paves the way to create devices that make energy from thin air.

The research team, led by Dr Rhys Grinter, PhD student Ashleigh Kropp, and Professor Chris Greening from the Monash University Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) in Melbourne, Australia, produced and analysed a hydrogen-consuming enzyme from a common soil bacterium.

Recent work by the team has shown that many bacteria use hydrogen from the atmosphere as an energy source in nutrient-poor environments.

"We've known for some time that bacteria can use the trace hydrogen in the air as a source of energy to help them grow and survive, including in Antarctic soils, volcanic craters, and the deep ocean," Professor Greening said. "But we didn't know how they did this, until now."

In this Nature paper, the researchers extracted the enzyme responsible for using atmospheric hydrogen from a bacterium called Mycobacterium smegmatis. They showed that this enzyme, called Huc, turns hydrogen gas into an electrical current.

The enzyme Huc from Mycobacterium smegmatis consuming atmospheric hydrogen.

Dr Grinter notes "Huc is extraordinarily efficient. Unlike all other known enzymes and chemical catalysts, it even consumes hydrogen below atmospheric levels – as little as 0.00005% of the air we breathe."

The researchers used several cutting-edge methods to reveal the molecular blueprint of atmospheric hydrogen oxidation. They used advanced microscopy (cryo-EM) to determine its atomic structure and electrical pathways, pushing boundaries to produce the most resolved enzyme structure reported by this method to date. They also used a technique called electrochemistry to demonstrate the purified enzyme creates electricity at minute hydrogen concentrations.

Laboratory work performed by Ms Kropp shows that it is possible to store purified Huc for long periods. "It is astonishingly stable. It is possible to freeze the enzyme or heat it to 80 degrees celsius, and it retains its power to generate energy," Ms Kropp said. "This reflects that this enzyme helps bacteria to survive in the most extreme environments."

Huc is a “natural battery” that produces a sustained electrical current from air or added hydrogen. While this research is at an early stage, the discovery of Huc has considerable potential to develop small air-powered devices, for example as an alternative to solar-powered devices.

The bacteria that produce enzymes like Huc are common and can be grown in large quantities, meaning we have access to a sustainable source of the enzyme. Dr Grinter says that a key objective for future work is to scale up Huc production. "Once we produce Huc in sufficient quantities, the sky is quite literally the limit for using it to produce clean energy."

"This is a really exciting discovery that could be a game changer in addressing climate change. It speaks to the strength of Monash research in developing smart solutions to the world's most pressing problems. A big congratulations to Dr Rhys Grinter, PhD student Ashleigh Kropp, and Professor Chris Greening - what a fantastic achievement,” said Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Rebekah Brown.

Read the full paper in Nature titled: Structural basis for bacterial energy extraction from atmospheric hydrogen
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-05781-7

This research received significant media coverage, including ABC News, 9News, 10News, The Conversation, The Sydney Morning Herald and Cosmos Magazine.

About the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University

Committed to making discoveries that will relieve the future burden of disease, the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University brings together more than 120 internationally-renowned research teams. Spanning six discovery programs across Cancer, Cardiovascular Disease, Development and Stem Cells, Infection and Immunity, Metabolism, Diabetes and Obesity, and Neuroscience, Monash BDI is one of the largest biomedical research institutes in Australia.  Our researchers are supported by world-class technology and infrastructure, and partner with industry, clinicians and researchers internationally to enhance lives through discovery.

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