Biological hydrogen production (algae)

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An algae bioreactor for hydrogen production.

The biological hydrogen production with algae is a method of photobiological water splitting which is done in a closed photobioreactor based on the production of hydrogen as a solar fuel by algae.[1][2] Algae produce hydrogen under certain conditions. In 2000 it was discovered that if C. reinhardtii algae are deprived of sulfur they will switch from the production of oxygen, as in normal photosynthesis, to the production of hydrogen.[3][4][5]


Photosynthesis in cyanobacteria and green algae splits water into hydrogen ions and electrons. The electrons are transported over ferredoxins.[6] Fe-Fe-hydrogenases (enzymes) combine them into hydrogen gas. In Chlamydomonas reinhardtii Photosystem II produces in direct conversion of sunlight 80% of the electrons that end up in the hydrogen gas.[7] Light-harvesting complex photosystem II light-harvesting protein LHCBM9 promotes efficient light energy dissipation.[8] The Fe-Fe-hydrogenases need an anaerobic environment as they are inactivated by oxygen. Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy is used to examine metabolic pathways.[9]

Truncated antenna[edit]

The chlorophyll (Chl) antenna size in green algae is minimized, or truncated, to maximize photobiological solar conversion efficiency and H2 production. The truncated Chl antenna size minimizes absorption and wasteful dissipation of sunlight by individual cells, resulting in better light utilization efficiency and greater photosynthetic productivity by the green alga mass culture.[10]


In 1939 a German researcher named Hans Gaffron, while working at the University of Chicago, observed that the algae he was studying, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (a green-algae), would sometimes switch from the production of oxygen to the production of hydrogen.[11] He never discovered the cause of this change and for many years other scientists failed in their attempts to discover it. In the late 1990s, professor Anastasios Melis a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley discovered that if the algae culture medium is deprived of sulfur it will switch from the production of oxygen (normal photosynthesis), to the production of hydrogen. He found that the enzyme responsible for this reaction is hydrogenase, but that the hydrogenase lost this function in the presence of oxygen. Melis found that depleting the amount of sulfur available to the algae interrupted its internal oxygen flow, allowing the hydrogenase an environment in which it can react, causing the algae to produce hydrogen.[12] Chlamydomonas moewusii is also a good strain for the production of hydrogen.[13]


1997 – Professor Anastasios Melis discovered, after following Hans Gaffron's work, that the deprivation of sulfur will cause the algae to switch from producing oxygen to producing hydrogen. The enzyme, hydrogenase, he found was responsible for the reaction.[14][15]

2006 – Researchers from the University of Bielefeld and the University of Queensland have genetically changed the single-cell green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in such a way that it produces an especially large amount of hydrogen.[16] The Stm6 can, in the long run, produce five times the volume made by the wild form of alga and up to 1.6-2.0 percent energy efficiency.

2007 – It was discovered that if copper is added to block oxygen generation algae will switch from the production of oxygen to hydrogen[17]

2007 – Anastasios Melis studying solar-to-chemical energy conversion efficiency in tlaX mutants of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, achieved 15% efficiency, demonstrating that truncated Chl antenna[18] size would minimize wasteful dissipation of sunlight by individual cells[19] This solar-to-chemical energy conversion process could be coupled to the production of a variety of bio-fuels including hydrogen.

2008 – Anastasios Melis studying solar-to-chemical energy conversion efficiency in tlaR mutants of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, achieved 25% efficiency out of a theoretical maximum of 30%.[20]

2009 – A team from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Oak Ridge National Laboratory stated that the process was more than 10 times more efficient as the temperature increased.[21]

2009 - Sergey Kosourov and Michael Seibert from National Renewable Energy Laboratory introduced a technique for immobilization of green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii in thin-layer alginate films.[22] The approach improved the light energy to hydrogen energy conversion efficiency in sulfur-deprived green algal cultures above 1.5% and increased stability of the process to atmospheric oxygen.

2011 – Adding a bioengineered enzyme increases the rate of algal hydrogen production by about 400 percent.[23]

2011 – A team at Argonne's Photosynthesis Group demonstrated how platinum nanoparticles can be linked to key proteins in algae to produce hydrogen fuel five times more efficiently.[24][25]

2012 - Researchers from National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Institute of Basic Biological Problems, RAS showed an exponential dependence of hydrogen photoproduction in green algal cultures on partial pressure of hydrogen in the photobioreactor headspace.[26] This work concluded that the total yield of hydrogen can be improved dramatically if hydrogen gas is removed from the system.

2013 – Uppsala University - In Chlamydomonas reinhardtii Photosystem II produces in direct conversion of sunlight 80% of the electrons that end up in the hydrogen gas.[7]


2008 – Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory are currently trying to find a way to take the part of the hydrogenase enzyme that creates the hydrogen gas and introduce it into the photosynthesis process. The result would be a large amount of hydrogen gas, possibly on par with the amount of oxygen created.[27][28]

2009 – Areas of research to increase efficiency include developing oxygen-tolerant FeFe-hydrogenases[29] and increased hydrogen production rates through improved electron transfer.[30]

As of 2009, HydroMicPro is testing plate reactors.[31]

As of 2013, Grow Energy has developed novel system for the large-scale production of hydrogen from structural bioreactors.[32]

2014 – Ruhr University and Max Planck Institute Enhance hydrogen production of microalgae by redirecting electrons from photosystem I to hydrogenase.[33]


It would take about 25,000 square kilometres to be sufficient to displace gasoline use in the US. To put this in perspective, this area represents approximately 10% of the area devoted to growing soya in the US.[34]

In 2004, the US Department of Energy issued a selling price of $2.60 per kilogram ($1.18/lb) as a goal for making renewable hydrogen economically viable. 1 kg is approximately the energy equivalent to a gallon of gasoline. To achieve this, the efficiency of light-to-hydrogen conversion must reach 10% while 2004 achieved-efficiency is only 1% and the 2004 actual selling price is estimated at $13.53 per kilogram ($6.14/lb)[35]

According to a 2004 DOE cost estimate, for a refueling station to supply 100 cars per day, it would need 300 kg. With current technology, a 300 kg per day stand-alone system will require 110,000 m2 of pond area, 0.2 g/l cell concentration, a truncated antennae mutant and 10 cm pond depth.[36]

Bioreactor design issues[edit]

  • Restriction of photosynthetic hydrogen production by accumulation of a proton gradient.
  • Competitive inhibition of photosynthetic hydrogen production by carbon dioxide.
  • Requirement for bicarbonate binding at photosystem II (PSII) for efficient photosynthetic activity.
  • Competitive drainage of electrons by oxygen in algal hydrogen production.
  • Economics must reach competitive price to other sources of energy and the economics are dependent on several parameters.
  • A major technical obstacle is the efficiency in converting solar energy into chemical energy stored in molecular hydrogen.

Attempts are in progress to solve these problems via bioengineering.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 2013 - Gimpel JA, et al Advances in microalgae engineering and synthetic biology applications for biofuel production
  2. ^ Hemschemeier, Anja; Melis, Anastasios; Happe, Thomas (2009). "Analytical approaches to photobiological hydrogen production in unicellular green algae". Photosynthesis Research. 102 (2–3): 523–540. doi:10.1007/s11120-009-9415-5. ISSN 0166-8595. PMC 2777220Freely accessible. PMID 19291418. 
  3. ^ Wired-Mutant Algae Is Hydrogen Factory Archived August 27, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-10-31. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  5. ^ Melis, Anastasios; Zhang, Liping; Forestier, Marc; Ghirardi, Maria L.; Seibert, Michael (2000-01-01). "Sustained Photobiological Hydrogen Gas Production upon Reversible Inactivation of Oxygen Evolution in the Green AlgaChlamydomonas reinhardtii". Plant Physiology. 122 (1): 127–136. doi:10.1104/pp.122.1.127. ISSN 1532-2548. PMC 58851Freely accessible. PMID 10631256. 
  6. ^ Peden, E. A.; Boehm, M.; Mulder, D. W.; Davis, R.; Old, W. M.; King, P. W.; Ghirardi, M. L.; Dubini, A. (2013). "Identification of Global Ferredoxin Interaction Networks in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii". Journal of Biological Chemistry. 288 (49): 35192–35209. doi:10.1074/jbc.M113.483727. ISSN 0021-9258. PMC 3853270Freely accessible. PMID 24100040. 
  7. ^ a b Volgusheva, A.; Styring, S.; Mamedov, F. (2013). "Increased photosystem II stability promotes H2 production in sulfur-deprived Chlamydomonas reinhardtii". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110 (18): 7223–7228. doi:10.1073/pnas.1220645110. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 3645517Freely accessible. PMID 23589846. 
  8. ^ Grewe, S.; Ballottari, M.; Alcocer, M.; D'Andrea, C.; Blifernez-Klassen, O.; Hankamer, B.; Mussgnug, J. H.; Bassi, R.; Kruse, O. (2014). "Light-Harvesting Complex Protein LHCBM9 Is Critical for Photosystem II Activity and Hydrogen Production in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii". The Plant Cell. 26 (4): 1598–1611. doi:10.1105/tpc.114.124198. ISSN 1040-4651. PMC 4036574Freely accessible. PMID 24706511. 
  9. ^ Langner, U; Jakob, T; Stehfest, K; Wilhelm, C (2009). "An energy balance from absorbed photons to new biomass for Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and Chlamydomonas acidophila under neutral and extremely acidic growth conditions". Plant Cell Environ. 32 (3): 250–8. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3040.2008.01917.x. PMID 19054351. 
  10. ^ Kirst, H.; Garcia-Cerdan, J. G.; Zurbriggen, A.; Ruehle, T.; Melis, A. (2012). "Truncated Photosystem Chlorophyll Antenna Size in the Green Microalga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii upon Deletion of the TLA3-CpSRP43 Gene". Plant Physiology. 160 (4): 2251–2260. doi:10.1104/pp.112.206672. ISSN 0032-0889. PMC 3510145Freely accessible. PMID 23043081. 
  11. ^ Algae: Power Plant of the Future?
  12. ^ Reengineering Algae To Fuel The Hydrogen Economy
  13. ^ Yang, Shihui; Guarnieri, Michael T; Smolinski, Sharon; Ghirardi, Maria; Pienkos, Philip T (2013). "De novo transcriptomic analysis of hydrogen production in the green alga Chlamydomonas moewusii through RNA-Seq". Biotechnology for Biofuels. 6 (1): 118. doi:10.1186/1754-6834-6-118. ISSN 1754-6834. PMC 3846465Freely accessible. PMID 23971877. 
  14. ^ Department of Energy report winter 2000 Archived February 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. ^ 2005-The anaerobic life of the photosynthetic alga
  16. ^ Hydrogen from algae – fuel of the future? Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ Surzycki, R.; Cournac, L.; Peltier, G.; Rochaix, J.-D. (2007). "Potential for hydrogen production with inducible chloroplast gene expression in Chlamydomonas". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104 (44): 17548–17553. doi:10.1073/pnas.0704205104. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 2077293Freely accessible. PMID 17951433. 
  18. ^ Kirst, H; García-Cerdán, JG; Zurbriggen, A; Melis, A (2012). "Assembly of the light-harvesting chlorophyll antenna in the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii requires expression of the TLA2-CpFTSY gene". Plant Physiol. 158 (2): 930–45. doi:10.1104/pp.111.189910. PMC 3271779Freely accessible. PMID 22114096. 
  19. ^ Tetali, SD; Mitra, M; Melis, A (2007). "Development of the light-harvesting chlorophyll antenna in the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is regulated by the novel Tla1 gene". Planta. 225 (4): 813–29. doi:10.1007/s00425-006-0392-z. PMID 16977454. 
  20. ^ DOE 2008 Report 25 %
  21. ^ Iwuchukwu, IJ; Vaughn, M; Myers, N; O'Neill, H; Frymier, P; Bruce, BD (2010). "Self-organized photosynthetic nanoparticle for cell-free hydrogen production". Nat Nanotechnol. 5 (1): 73–9. doi:10.1038/nnano.2009.315. PMID 19898496. 
  22. ^ Kosourov, Sergey; Seibert, Michael (1 January 2009). "Hydrogen photoproduction by nutrient-deprived cells immobilized within thin alginate films under aerobic and anaerobic conditions". Biotechnology and Bioengineering. 102 (1): 50–58. doi:10.1002/bit.22050. PMID 18823051. 
  23. ^ Yacoby, I.; Pochekailov, S.; Toporik, H.; Ghirardi, M. L.; King, P. W.; Zhang, S. (2011). "Photosynthetic electron partitioning between [FeFe]-hydrogenase and ferredoxin:NADP+-oxidoreductase (FNR) enzymes in vitro". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108 (23): 9396–9401. doi:10.1073/pnas.1103659108. ISSN 0027-8424. 
  24. ^ Utschig, Lisa M.; Dimitrijevic, Nada M.; Poluektov, Oleg G.; Chemerisov, Sergey D.; Mulfort, Karen L.; Tiede, David M. (2011). "Photocatalytic Hydrogen Production from Noncovalent Biohybrid Photosystem I/Pt Nanoparticle Complexes". The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. 2 (3): 236–241. doi:10.1021/jz101728v. ISSN 1948-7185. 
  25. ^ Utschig, Lisa M.; Silver, Sunshine C.; Mulfort, Karen L.; Tiede, David M. (2011). "Nature-Driven Photochemistry for Catalytic Solar Hydrogen Production: A Photosystem I–Transition Metal Catalyst Hybrid". Journal of the American Chemical Society. 133 (41): 16334–16337. doi:10.1021/ja206012r. ISSN 0002-7863. PMID 21923143. 
  26. ^ Kosourov, Sergey N.; Batyrova, Khorcheska A.; Petushkova, Ekaterina P.; Tsygankov, Anatoly A.; Ghirardi, Maria L.; Seibert, Michael (May 2012). "Maximizing the hydrogen photoproduction yields in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii cultures: The effect of the H2 partial pressure". International Journal of Hydrogen Energy. 37 (10): 8850–8858. doi:10.1016/j.ijhydene.2012.01.082. 
  27. ^ Algae Could One Day be Major Hydrogen Fuel Source Newswise, Retrieved on June 30, 2008.
  28. ^ Melis A and Happe T (2001). "Hydrogen Production: Green Algae as a Source of Energy". Plant Physiol. 127 (3): 740–748. doi:10.1104/pp.010498. PMC 1540156Freely accessible. PMID 11706159. 
  29. ^ Photobiological hydrogen production—prospects and challenges Archived July 4, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ 2005-A prospectus for biological H2 production
  31. ^ Hydrogen from microalgae
  32. ^ Hydral Energy Systems
  33. ^ Rumpel, Sigrun; Siebel, Judith F.; Farès, Christophe; Duan, Jifu; Reijerse, Edward; Happe, Thomas; Lubitz, Wolfgang; Winkler, Martin (2014). "Enhancing hydrogen production of microalgae by redirecting electrons from photosystem I to hydrogenase". Energy Environ. Sci. 7 (10): 3296–3301. doi:10.1039/C4EE01444H. ISSN 1754-5692. 
  34. ^ Growing hydrogen for the cars of tomorrow
  35. ^ 2004-Updated Cost Analysis of Photobiological Hydrogen
  36. ^ 2004- Updated cost analysis of photobiological hydrogen production from chlamydomonas reinhardtii green algae

External links[edit]