Scientists at Oxford University have come up with a way to make electricity biologically. It’s not an English version of Ed Begley, pedaling his stationary bike attached to a turbine to make tea and crumpets. Nope, two different enzymes (hydrogenase and laccase) work together to kick start the chemical reactions that make electricity from hydrogen. It’s a biological fuel cell.
Traditional fuel cells generally use platinum to catalyze the reactions. The precious metal is scarce and toxic, making it expensive and hardly eco-friendly. The enzymes in bio-fuel cells are ubiquitous, found in plants and micro-organisms. They are pretty much infinitely renewable and completely biodegradable. They effectively make biological batteries that never run out as long as there is some hydrogen around. And what’s more, the hydrogen stream does not have to be pure, as it does for chemical catalysts. The enzymes simply pick and choose the hydrogen atoms from a smorgasbord of gases that would render the traditional fuel cell utterly impotent.
Ain’t life grand!
The university’s commercialization company, Isis Innovations has a couple of bio-fuel cells running a digital watch as a demo, reminiscent of, but a jot more sophisticated than sticking electrodes into a spud. The company hopes the invention will juice up all kinds of small electronics, and eventually more power-hungry gizmos.
However, the Oxford profs have a nagging little problem in common with traditional fuel cell developers.