Professors Noam Adir and Harry B. Gray

Second 2012 Transformative Science Grant
Looks for New Clean Energy Source

An international research team lead by Professors Noam Adir and Harry B. Gray have been awarded the second 2012 Transformative Science Grant by the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF).

“With the new Transformative Science Grant,” explained Professor Adir, a structural biophysicist at the Technion’s Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, “we will push the research forward in the hope that we can prove that we can indeed produce a useful amount of clean energy.  Our project is aimed to create a system of energy production in a fashion never attempted previously, and thus requires the expertise of many different fields of research.  Our team is truly interdisciplinary.”

A relatively new program for the BSF, funds are awarded for projects that have the potential to be ‘transformative,’ that is, if successful are expected to make a very significant scientific breakthrough.  Proud to have been chosen to receive one of only two Transformative Science Grants awarded by the BSF in 2012, Professor Adir partnered with other Technion colleagues in Israel and two others from the United States.  The Technion members are Professor Gadi Schuster, an expert in molecular biology, former Dean of the Faculty of Biology and recently appointed Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs of the Technion and Avner Rothschild, an electrochemist who is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering.

Their research partners from the United States included Professor Harry B. Gray, a world-renowned expert on electron transport in biological systems, the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at Caltech, along with David Stern, an expert on plant molecular biology, President of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and adjunct professor in Cornell University’s Department of Plant Biology.

Entitled, “Direct production of energy using cyanobacteria and plants: A bio-generator” the scientists propose to harness the natural process of energy conversion of photosynthetic organisms. They intend to use light energy in novel, environmentally friendly electrochemical cells to produce storable fuels: hydrogen or reduced hydrocarbons. Hydrogen, the cleanest of all fuels, will be produced from two clean and abundant natural resources: water and sunlight, and its production will actually reduce atmospheric CO2.  Natural photosynthetic reducing power may also be coupled to enzymatic processes for the formation of simple carbon-based fuels, such as methanol. In their research, they will attempt to merge their novel biological electron transfer pathway with an electrochemical cell able to produce an electric current to be used to reduce H+ to hydrogen. They also plan to introduce these modifications into a transgenic plant, providing a large amount of easily obtainable biological material for bio-energy conversion.

They describe three “prerequisites” for the engineering of a useful bio-generator:

  1. The engineered organism must grow at its normal rate of growth by the natural photosynthetic process – so that it can be grown cheaply in large quantities.
  2. Electron transfer must become available from the photosynthetic membranes, cheaply isolated, without expensive and polluting isolation steps – no metals, detergents, organic solvents, fixating agents, etc.
  3. The photosynthetic system must be stable for a useful amount of time

“The BSF is one of the premiere ways for Israeli scientists to form lasting and meaningful scientific collaborations with world-renowned research groups in the United States, collaborations that clearly improve the quality of Israeli research. It also affords, I believe, these same United States groups the opportunity to collaborate with Israeli scientists who use a combination of inventiveness and insight to try and solve what might appear to be impossible dreams,” explained Professor Adir.  Noting the great potential, he concluded, “Our proposed system can be the starting point for a change in the way we create and use energy in the future, which will not only be clean in use but also will absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Illustration #1. Photosystem II (PSII), found in the photosynthetic membranes of all plants, algae and cyanobacteria, is the enzyme that catalyzes the light driven process of electron flow. The source of the electrons is water, resulting in the production of oxygen. All of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is a result of the activity of PSII. This is the process that the funded scientists have modified slightly to allow controlled removal of the photo-driven electric current. The modification, on the protein denoted D1 in the illustration, has a negligible effect on the organisms normal growth, and the electrons are removed by the scientists only when the membranes are isolated from the cell.

Illustration #2: This schematic shows what the funded Transformative project aims to develop. An electrochemical cell (photo cell) will contain membranes the scientist will isolate from modified plants or bacteria (on the bottom left) and a soluble electron carrier (on the bottom right). When illuminated, electrons from water flow through PSII to the electron carrier, which transports the electrons to the electrodes. These electrodes allow the current to be used directly as electricity or to reduce protons to molecular hydrogen, which can be used as fuel. The only “waste” is oxygen, and when the membranes are “used up” they can be reused for fertilizer, food for livestock, or even for the production of conventional bio-fuels.

Illustration #3: As a continuation of #2, this illustration depicts a number of ways that the team’s bio-generator could be attached to methods to perform the synthesis of hydrogen. Many people believe that hydrogen can serve as the fuel of the future since when used (burned), all it creates is water.