Interest in this subject has been growing. In 2001 the National Center for Biotechnology Information referred to a paper by A. Melis and T. Happe, Hydrogen Production. Green Algae as a Source of Energy, (Plant Physiol. 2001 November; 127(3): 740–748. PMCID: PMC1540156). They opened with the assertion that hydrogen gas is thought to be the ideal fuel – when burnt, no carbon dioxide is produced, only water – but continued:
“A challenging problem in establishing H2 as a source of energy for the future is the renewable and environmentally friendly generation of large quantities of H2 gas”.
Five years later, Indian broadsheet Daily News and Analysis reported that researchers from the University of Bielefeld in Germany and the University of Queensland in Brisbane, working as a team, had succeeded in breeding algae, which produced hydrogen in previously unheard-of quantities.
They had genetically changed the single-cell green alga ‘Chlamydomonas reinhardtii’ in such a way that it produces an especially large amount of hydrogen. This mutation is called ‘Stm6’.
A bioengineering team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also addressed the problem of algae producing only a small amount of hydrogen, their main focus being on the creation of compounds like sugar needed for their survival. They developed an enzyme that increases hydrogen production by 400% and suppresses the algae’s need to create sugar, all without killing the creatures.
In April the MIT website described this work and referred to a paper they had published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The abstract is available via the link given, but will be totally unintelligible to non-scientists.
Like the genetic engineering strategy, this bioengineering option is not yet commercially viable and further work is under way in several research establishments.
Perhaps China will decide to undertake further research and utilise periodic green algae invasions which have been damaging its aquaculture and tourist beaches for years. Currently gathered, dried and used as fertiliser, could the algae one day be producing enough hydrogen to power vehicles?