Scientists studying a cousin of the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis and leprosy have discovered an enzyme that converts hydrogen into electricity, and they think it could be used to create a new, clean source of energy literally from thin air.
The enzyme, which has been named Huc, is used by the bacterium Mycobacterium smegmatis to draw energy from atmospheric hydrogen, enabling it to survive in extreme, nutrient-poor environments.
Now, by extracting and studying the enzyme, the researchers say they have found a new energy source that could be used to power a range of small portable electrical devices. They published their findings March 8 in the journal Nature.
“We imagine that a Huc-containing power source could power a range of small portable devices using air, including biometric sensors, environmental monitors, digital clocks, and calculators or simple computers,” lead author Rhys Grinter, a microbiologist at Monash University in Australia, told Live Science via email.
“When you provide Huc with more concentrated hydrogen, it produces more electrical current,” he said. “Which means you could use it in fuel cells to power more complex devices, like smart watches, or smartphones, more portable complex computers, and possibly even a car.”
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M. smegmatis is a nonpathogenic, fast-growing bacterium often used in the lab to study the cell wall structure of its close, disease-causing relative, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Commonly found in soil all over the world, M. smegmatis has long been known to convert trace hydrogen in the air into energy; in this way, the microbe can survive in the toughest environments, including Antarctic soils, volcanic craters and the deep ocean, where little other fuel can be found, the researchers said.
But until now, how M. smegmatis did this was a pervading mystery.
If you’re curious to delve deeper into the topic, read more about it here.