Our ON Prime team HydroGEM have developed a process for making hydrogen via bacteria that’s free from fossil fuels.

Hydrogen has been hailed as a fuel of the future. When burnt with oxygen it produces no greenhouse emissions, with the only by-product being water.  

However, this “zero emissions” fuel isn’t green yet as nearly 96% of hydrogen is currently produced using natural gas, oil and coal which creates carbon dioxide as a by-product during processing.

Given that the currently 50-megatonnes of hydrogen produced annually is projected to increase by 10-fold by 2050, it’s crucial that climate-friendly processes are developed to meet this demand.

Enter HydroGEM

HydroGEM have used Synthetic Biology methods to engineer a hydrogen-producing gene pathway into bacteria, meaning that they can take in a renewable biomass feedstock - such as glucose - and cleanly produce hydrogen gas. 

Sugar cane can be used as a renewable hydrogen-source.

Their approach is stable and scalable; and, compared to hydrogen produced from algae - which needs large shallow ponds - their footprint for production is 100 times smaller. The method also doesn’t have the issues of low efficiency and high energy demand as seen in H2O splitting, another common way to produce hydrogen gas. 

The cherry on top of the whole process is that the hydrogen can then be converted back into electricity or other forms of energy when needed — via a fuel cell or direct combustion — with the only emission being pure water!

A close up of the prototype bioreactor used to produce hydrogen.

(ON) Prime-d for success

At the beginning of ON Prime, the team’s idea was to simply make hydrogen gas from a sugar sources to either sell directly to customers or engage with gas suppliers who could export the product. 

However, through the ON Prime program their research direction changed. The team spoke to key stakeholders across the hydrogen value chain – from large oil and gas companies to policy makers and regulators – and learnt that current markets are driven by the lowest cost solutions rather than being led by ‘green’ policies or values. 

Another key insight from their customer discovery was unearthing the scale of the challenge and the high cost associated with getting hydrogen to an end user. Currently the storage and transport of hydrogen is difficult and expensive, so the team has begun to look at other solutions for producing and utilizing the bio-hydrogen both onsite and on demand. This discovery has created opportunities for HydroGEM who are now beginning to work on new solutions for onsite production as an alternative model. 

The Macquarie University Hydrogen Team (from left): Tony Jerkovic, Robert Willows, Ari Edmonds, Louise Brown, India Boyton, Kersten Petroll, Jocelyn Johns, Thi Huynh. Absent: Natalie Curach, Sam King.

Since ON Prime, the Macquarie University team have continued to grow after receiving a $2.7 million grant from the Australian government’s renewable energy agency ARENA in partnership with BOC and Bioplatforms Australia. 

HydroGEM hope that in 10 years, Australia will be the world leaders in bio-hydrogen production, with our homes and vehicles powered by renewable sources likes sugar cane and cereals.

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