Unlimited Clean Energy

The Italian scientist, Marina Faiella, is working on creating artificial proteins that can potentially be used to produce hydrogen, a possible source of unlimited clean energy.

The natural world has always been a source of inspiration for researchers, and Marina Faiella’s research project is no exception. Her investigations into the structure and function of proteins have led her to propose a biologically-inspired solution for the sustainable production of hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen gas (H2) has the potential to be a limitless source of clean fuel. However, current methods of production, such as electrolysis and steam-methane reforming processes, use expensive platinum-based catalysts or cause pollution, thus undermining their sustainability.

Biological systems use hydrogenase enzymes, incorporating iron or nickel at their active sites, to reversibly catalyse the conversion of protons to molecular hydrogen during vital cell processes. Nevertheless, hydrogenases have evolved as highly complex proteins, and understanding their catalytic mechanism has proved problematic.

To this aim, chemists have been able to reproduce the activity of hydrogenases by modelling the components of their active sites. However, these models lack some of the complex scaffolding which, in nature, help ensure the functional properties of these enzymes. Marina’s innovative idea is to build a new system which combines the advantages of the simple models with the key-features of the natural enzymes.

At Arizona State University, she will study the three-dimensional structure and functioning of natural hydrogenases in biological systems. She will then attempt to produce miniaturized versions of these enzymes to be used as novel biocatalysts. Her simplified models will be computationally designed to optimize the stability and the catalytic activity desired, and they will be tested to produce hydrogen in comparison with natural hydrogenases.

In a second phase, she will investigate how these miniaturized, biologically-inspired systems can be scaled up for industrial application by incorporating them into non-biological systems such as fuel cells. Marina hopes that her research will have the potential to make a significant impact on the sustainable production of clean fuel, and help protect the very same nature which provided her solution.

For Women in Science

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