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Just fancy that – a clean, green enzyme

I’ll will happily put my hand up and admit that I am not always comfortable in the ever-changing world of science. The more modern the science, the more uncomfortable and the less easily convinced I become. I invariably end up with a lot more questions than answers.

That said, this particular editorial space has prompted plenty of discussion on matters of science in recent times, and I imagine the debate around climate change and individual pandemic positions will continue, so I am trying to take in new information lest I need to defend my view.

A wee while back, I detailed my amazement at the minuscule but enormously significant step forward in nuclear fission science in Britain. Scientists there are trying to capture the amount of energy estimated to emit from a star. A lofty goal, certainly, but the rewards could change life on planet earth for centuries.

Next up in the ‘would you believe it’ file is news that New Zealand and Australian scientists have made what many are describing as a startling discovery – an enzyme that turns air into electricity. That’s right, air. As in, the stuff we breathe.

Apparently, after studying bacteria in soil that can oxidise hydrogen, scientists discovered an enzyme that could offer a new, clean energy source, the only by-product of which is water. Are you with me so far? Because it gets quite technical quite quickly from here.

Otago University professor Greg Cook is part of the team studying this enzyme, and to put it mildly, he’s quite excited at the latest breakthrough.

An enzyme, by the way, is a biological catalyst and is almost always a protein.

It speeds up the rate of a specific chemical reaction in the cell. The enzyme is not destroyed during the reaction and is used repeatedly. Impressive. And no mention of cleaning products.

The scientists now have a molecular blueprint that basically shows us how this enzyme is able to extract hydrogen from the atmosphere, and then use that hydrogen to energise bacteria.

Extrapolate a bit, and we could use this enzyme to oxidize a molecular hydrogen atmosphere and then produce energy in a hydrogen fuel cell. Well, that’s the plan and probably more than a hint of theory.

The world is using an increasing amount of hydropower as an alternative energy source. Water, however, can be an unreliable source, and in some parts of the world, there is no prospect of ever using water as a source of energy. Well, not currently.

Should we be able to efficiently and reliably extract hydrogen from the air, we might never run out of it when and where we need it.

The team of Anzac scientists say that the next goal is to produce this enzyme at a level sufficient to build reactors and test this hypothesis that the protein, when fed, could deliver protons and electrons to basically make energy and store it. That next phase will no doubt require some major advances in scaling up the production of this protein.

I might need a video with pictures to get a better grip on this advancement. Otherwise, all I need is the air that I breathe.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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