Popular Science 4 December 2010
A team at MIT is looking to viruses for a new method of splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, hoping for means as simple and efficient as those used by plants during photosynthesis. They have assembled a modified virus that should do exactly that, designed with “oxidizing machinery”, a zinc porphyrin pigment and iridium oxide catalyst, normally employed by plants in water oxidation. The virus is the critical piece here because it supports specific arrangement of the pigment and catalyst. The engineered bacteriophage M13 serves as a “biological scaffold,” spacing the porphyrins and iridium such that oxidation rate is quadrupled.
Results are promising, but the team has yet to deal with the issue of disintegrated hydrogen atoms, which are useless as a bunch of electrons and protons. If intact hydrogen atoms can be recovered from the process, the MIT team may have a functional, self-sustaining, water-splitting device in their possession, ready to be adapted for commercial use.