A scientist at IIT-Kharagpur has patented a technique to harvest hydrogen from a commonly found strain of bacteria, providing a possible alternative to current hydrogen extraction techniques which are expensive.
Hydrogen, often described as the new age fuel, has prominently emerged in India’s research programmes. When burnt, it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas and is, therefore, considered to be cleanest fuel yet known.
To be sure, it could take time for the new technique to become technologically and commercially viable to produce hydrogen in sufficient quantity, but scientists say that it is a start.
“Culturing micro-organisms to extract hydrogen is too much into the future,” said B.M. Koundal, former head of department of microbiology, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, “but every technology has its time. Organizations everywhere are patenting microorganisms, so it makes sense for India also to support programmes that tap the commercial potential of these microbes.”
The technique has been perfected by Debabrata Das, a professor of biotechnology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
His technique induces the bacteria, entereobacter cloacae, to discharge free hydrogen, via a fermentation process.
The foul-smelling strain of bacteria is hardy and found in a variety of locations, including the intestines of human beings and industrial sewage from chemical factories.
The professor and his team of researchers are trying to induce the bacteria to yield a significant portion of its biomass as hydrogen. One way was to mix a gooey mixture of malt, yeast and glucose in a 10-litre vessel, called bioreactor.
Enthused by the initial results, the ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE), gave an additional grant to scale up these activities. Work is now going on to cultivate the bacteria in a 1,000-litre-capacity bioreactor—a hundredfold scaling.
“The challenge in this biological method of production of hydrogen lies in coaxing the bacteria to release hydrogen efficiently and quickly,” said A.K. Ghosh, who heads the biotechnology department at IIT Kharagpur and is closely associated with Das in his research work.
Das was unavailable for comment as he is travelling in the US.
At present, even though hydrogen exists abundantly in nature, it doesn’t exist in isolation and is found hitched to carbon or oxygen, as biogas (or other hydrocarbons) or water. Isolating this bound hydrogen, in enough quantities to store in fuel-storage devices, such as hydrogen cylinders, is what makes its expensive as a fuel.
Currently, the fuel costs Rs240 a kg, which is way too unviable for vehicle manufacturers such as Bajaj Auto Ltd and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd to launch commercial versions of their prototype hydrogen-fuelled vehicles.
The government has announced an ambitious programme to have a million hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on the road by 2020.
“We are looking at every possible method—from micro-organsims, solar heating, electrolysis—to cost-effectively produce hydrogen,” said S.K. Chopra, special secretary to the ministry of new and renewable energy.
A senior scientist in the government, who requested anonymity, said Das’s reports “were promising,” and a report on the scaled-up research is shortly expected.