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Biotech Science

MIT Researchers Harness Viruses To Split Water 347

ByronScott writes "A team of researchers at MIT has just announced that they have successfully modified a virus to split apart molecules of water, paving the way for an efficient and non-energy-intensive method of producing hydrogen fuel. 'The team, led by Angela Belcher, the Germeshausen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biological Engineering, engineered a common, harmless bacterial virus called M13 so that it would attract and bind with molecules of a catalyst (the team used iridium oxide) and a biological pigment (zinc porphyrins). The viruses became wire-like devices that could very efficiently split the oxygen from water molecules. Over time, however, the virus-wires would clump together and lose their effectiveness, so the researchers added an extra step: encapsulating them in a microgel matrix, so they maintained their uniform arrangement and kept their stability and efficiency.'"
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MIT Researchers Harness Viruses To Split Water

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:31PM (#31821072)

    I can just see it now. Some of these get dropped into an ocean, multiply, and eventually deconstruct the majority of the world's water into oxygen and hydrogen. It's the end of the world!!

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      kinda like ice-nine, but backwards?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by lobiusmoop ( 305328 )

      Viruses can't multiply by themselves, they have no DNA. They'd have to infect something first and convince it to do the work. Since there probably won't be any fish left in the sea soon [bbc.co.uk], it isn't going to happen.

      • by ElectricTurtle ( 1171201 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:56PM (#31821530)
        Hey guess what Mr. Gloom & Doom: the P-Tr extinction about 250 million years ago killed 96% of all marine species without our help, and you know how empty the oceans are now? Oh, that's right, speciation naturally filled the hole, once again without our help. If the environment changes and things die, whatever doesn't die will change to meet the needs of the new environment so long as there are resources to consume. The end.
        • by xaxa ( 988988 )

          That's fine -- but 6.8 billion of us don't want to risk homo sapiens being on the "extinct" list.

          • So you think freezing the biosphere forever is really the answer? Environmental changes have given successively more and more advanced biospheres, but you would stop that just because you're afraid of how things might be different? You do realize that regardless of whether such an effort is successful or not (it literally can't be, but we'll let that aside), homo sapiens will eventually become extinct. If you can't rationally face the mortality of the species, can you rationally face your own mortality?
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Moryath ( 553296 )

              Homo Sapiens will either evolve into something (or several somethings) else, or die off entirely. Of course, we can argue that we've already managed to fuck up our own evolution pretty good; the number of our members who manage to breed despite incredibly crippling congenital diseases, tendency towards debilitating developmental diseases, or simply managing to survive their own ridiculous stupidity [southparkstudios.com] through advancing medical science, is staggering.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Lueseiseki ( 1189513 )

          about 250 million years ago

          And how many millions of years did it take to get back to normal? Do you think humans could continue to thrive for just one of those millions?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by gilleain ( 1310105 )

        What? Of course viruses have DNA (or RNA) otherwise there would be nothing to replicate...

        Of course, there is also the mimivirus, with 1,000 genes that produces its own virion factory in the cell, so that it doesn't even have to put its genes into the cell nucleus.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by winomonkey ( 983062 )
        The key term that they used in the article was "bacterial virus", which is also known as a bacteriophage, which is a virus that acts specifically on a bacterial host. Fish may come and go, but bacteria will be around for a wee bit yet. However, there is still the issue that the virus itself does not "split water", but merely serves as scaffolding for the other components in the process.
      • by mutube ( 981006 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @04:16PM (#31821826) Homepage

        ...they have no DNA

        All viruses have either RNA or DNA. If it doesn't have DNA/RNA it's not a virus [wikipedia.org] (2nd para).

        Viruses cannot replicate without a host cell. However, it's quite possible to create viruses that are replication defective and cannot replicate even given their natural host. This is not a 'mutation' that can be undone but the removal of the entire sections of the viral genome: the virus remains able to infect (capsid interactions) but cannot complete it's life cycle. Initial replication is done with specifically spliced crossovers in a susceptible host cell.

        It's all quite safe, and forms the basis of using viruses for both vaccination and gene therapy.

        Now that's over with:


    • by goombah99 ( 560566 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:39PM (#31821212)

      first it's not the virus that is doing anything. it's just a scaffold. the virus just self-assembles the scaffold for you. the interior DNA / RNA is irrelevant.

      that said, the design for the self assembly and display is in the virus DNA I believe. so given a host to express itself in, it could presumably reproduce this in the wild. it would not be any use to the virus. But you could imagine that some host cell might harness the virus to make hydrogen for it's own purposes.

      So I suspect that if this gets loose in the wild that the virus won't keep this trait long enough for some host cell to adapt to taking advantage of it.

    • by Tiger4 ( 840741 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:43PM (#31821296)

      Just don't get any on your skin.

      "Gas bag science researchers exploding with good news. Film at eleven!"

    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:44PM (#31821330) Homepage Journal

      Even if viruses could reproduce without a host (they can't), when oxygen mixes with hydrogen, the hydrogen oxidizes (burns) instantly. The exhaust from burning hydrogen is water.

      Sheesh, I knew that in the 7th grade. [slashdot.org] I almost got expelled from school for knowing it...

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by xaxa ( 988988 )

        A hydrogen and oxygen mix at room temperature won't burn -- you need a spark. It's easy to make the mix: put two electrodes (carbon?) in water with an inverted, water-filled tube above them. You can use two inverted tubes to collect the gases if you prefer.

        (Any mistakes are my own. I'm remembering this from school. I'm sure I did the acid+metal = hydrogen + alkali experiment when I was 10 or 11, and the electrolysis of water a year later. In both cases we had to do the "standard test for hydrogen" -- it bur

      • Actually, you need a spark for hydrogen and oxygen to ignite. Hydrogen and chlorine will ignite with light only, however.

        As for your near-expulsion, that's strange. I went to a private high school and on the recruitment night the chemistry lab had hydrogen ignition as one of the two major features - the other was blowing soap bubbles full of natural gas which we then ignited with a candle attached to the end of a dowel. It was 20 years ago, though.
    • by arielCo ( 995647 )
      Oxygen and hydrogen? Nothing a lit match can't fix. A bit of global warming ensues, but hey...
    • Yes. Just like petroleum eating bacteria right? No wait those are known since like the 70s and we still have oil.
  • by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:36PM (#31821162)

    It still takes energy to split the molecule, and it has to come from somewhere, even if viruses to the dirty work.

  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:36PM (#31821166)

    Despite the self-limiting nature of the technique they describe, whether it ends up working in production or not, I guarantee you that, in a matter of days, someone is going to be flogging a script around Hollywood studios about a runaway virus destroying all the water on earth and the team of hot, young scientists who save the day at the last possible minute by using something compounded from randomly selected Greek and Latin roots.

    • by blair1q ( 305137 )

      they're going to have to make mine first

      it's about a virus that mutates into other viruses and the team of young, hot scientists (i see angelina jolie as their mentor, Doctor Y) can only stop it by developing a virus to infect the virus ...half tempted not to post this, because now that i think of it, it's a killer idea for a spec script...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      *gasp* they resort to polyamory??? FIENDS!

    • Despite the self-limiting nature of the technique they describe, whether it ends up working in production or not, I guarantee you that, in a matter of days, someone is going to be flogging a script around Hollywood studios about a runaway virus destroying all the water on earth and the team of hot, young scientists who save the day at the last possible minute by using something compounded from randomly selected Greek and Latin roots.

      I predict that they will have to create a hyper-velocity neutron star supernova with quanum entangled quibits that will irradiate the viruses.

    • by Bozdune ( 68800 )

      The Germ-eshausen Professor. Heh.

  • They also need to find a way to transform the products of the reaction into usable hydrogen fuel – currently the hydrogen atoms are split into constituent protons and electrons that must be recombined into complete atoms and molecules.

    What's up with this? Last time I checked, a naked proton will find an electron, combine into hydrogen and then form up with other hydrogen atoms into H2 spontaneously. Perhaps, they meant the hydrogen spontaneously recombines with the Oxygen released when water is split.

    • by jmauro ( 32523 )

      A "naked" single protons is always a hydrogen atom regardless of the presence or lack there of of an electron.

      They're quite electrically unstable and will bind to just about anything with a free electron or two to spare. Not just other hydrogen molocules.

      • ... this still seems like a pretty trivial problem to solve. I would imagine that the vast majority of these free protons would more-or-less immediately hook up with a passing water molecule to form a hydronium ion. Put a pair of electrodes in the water, run a small amount of current through it. The H3O+ ions will be attracted to the negative pole, start soaking up electrons, and... instant hydrogen, right? And the amount of electricity required would be way less than straight up electrolysis, since the onl

  • by GAATTC ( 870216 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:39PM (#31821226)
    Press release stories like this should get a special Slashdot category - something like scientific vaporware. While this is potentially an important discovery, none of the information needed to determine if this could ever be an energetically or economically viable way of producing hydrogen is provided. I split water into hydrogen and oxygen every day when I run gels in my lab. The energy you could potentially get from the hydrogen that this electrolysis produces is smaller than the amount of energy it takes to run the gel. Basic research is cool and all (so cool it's what I do for a living), but without more data I would guess that this discovery is very much on the basic end of the basic-->applied research spectrum. Discoveries like this are made all the time - only a tiny fraction end up being useful in real life.
    • Probably just vaporware.

      They also need to find a way to transform the products of the reaction into usable hydrogen fuel – currently the hydrogen atoms are split into constituent protons and electrons that must be recombined into complete atoms and molecules.

      That doesn't make too much sense, but if it's correct, they are splitting water into mono-atomic hydrogen and mono-atomic oxygen, which will spontaneously recombine into H2O if it's not kept separated. Keeping the hydrogen and oxygen separate is a big problem. (without expending more energy to push stuff through barriers.)

  • by jfengel ( 409917 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:40PM (#31821238) Homepage Journal

    The actual splitting of water is done by using a pigment to absorb sunlight, then transferring the energy to indium oxide as a catalyst to split water. That's old news. Good, but old.

    The problem is that it's hard to keep them doing this efficiently; things tend to clump up. They came up with a way to use viruses to make a structure that keeps everything separate. Viruses are good for building self-assembling structures; this is also old news in nanotech.

    Putting it all together here, that's news, but not terribly exciting news, since it's all still in a lab and not scaled to industrial sizes. So the PR department buffs it up with a misleading headline about viruses splitting water.

    So no, you don't have to worry about the virus eating the world. It's all about indium oxide, which is not self-replicating. The viruses are just a piece of the machinery.

    • by pushing-robot ( 1037830 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:53PM (#31821508)

      Hey, this is Slashdot. Stop depressing us with your world's-not-going-to-end attitude.

    • This little comment of yours is more informative than the article which was originally linked to.

      It also does not contain nonsensical statements like this:

      "Splitting water is one way to solve the basic problem of solar energy: It’s only available when the sun shines."

    • by c++0xFF ( 1758032 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @04:18PM (#31821854)

      Minor correction: they're using iridium oxide. That alone make it hard to scale up: iridium (virtually tied with osmium) is the densest material possible on earth that we know about, has an incredibly high melting point (900 *C higher than iron, though less than tungsten), and rare enough and hard enough to process to make it relatively expensive. They're using it in the lab because its a very good catalyst (see the rest of the platinum group).

      But fortunately, almost all major advances start out this way: a small process that wouldn't work in real life, but which is later developed with other materials or techniques to scale up production. Unfortunately, many more end up as vaporware. Either way, even small advances like this are exciting.

  • by bbn ( 172659 ) <baldur.norddahl@gmail.com> on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:40PM (#31821246)

    Before anyone more think this will split water molecules magically. It also requires a catalyst, so it will not spread by itself in the ocean.

    Missing totally from the article, is any hard numbers about efficiency. Is it converting solar energy at 1%, 10%, 20% ? How is compared to PV-cells? If it is anywhere near, it could be very neat to get your solar energy as hydrogen instead of electricity. Hydrogen can be stored and converted to electricity when you need it.

  • In the article its says they split hydrogen into protons and electrons that need to be recombined into atoms and molecules..

    Am I missing something basic about chemistry and physics or are the writers of the article just mucking up the information? Aren't they just splitting hydrogen from oxygen using H20 as the "fuel" and sun light as the energy?

  • This is solar energy (Score:5, Informative)

    by Linzer ( 753270 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:41PM (#31821274)
    Some important information is missing from the summary. The viruses don't do the splitting. They profide a scaffold for the synthetic catalyst (iridium oxyde here) which catalyzes dissociation of water by sunlight. So this is a form of solar energy using a clever catalytic nanomaterial, not some mysterious virus-based energy as the summary makes it sound.
    • Translation: we looked at plants, and decided that trying to use some kind of bio lattice with catalizers on top to utilize the energy of sunlight to convert something common to something useful seemed like a good idea.

  • Virus multiplies, converts *all* water on the Earth into a hydrogen ... All life on the Earth disappeared except for the hydrogen-powered vehicles which evolve into intelligent beings.

  • Desalination (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SoTerrified ( 660807 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:42PM (#31821292)

    Am I missing something, or wouldn't this be a huge benefit to the existing process of extracting drinkable water from sea water? One of the major problems with the current process is the energy costs. If this is a low energy way to separate the hydrogen and oxygen, it would be easy to filter and much less energy intensive to recombine.

  • by merrickm ( 1192625 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @03:43PM (#31821304)
    Great for leading your people to freedom from Nanopharaoh.
  • Apparently, the viruses will have to clean up the mess as well. Title of the TFA: MIT researchers harness viruses to spilt water.
  • Regardless of the efficiency of this method, the hydrogen economy is still vaporware.

    Hydrogen remains an energy transport, or store, not a source. You can't yet store enough practically to make a useful road vehicle. You lose energy manufacturing it electrically. You lose energy converting it back to electricity.

    The current largest source of hydrogen? Oil. I'm sure you can wring it out of coal as well. The fossil fuel lobby love hydrogen technologies because they are the biggest source of hydrogen.

    Solve the

    • As sucky as hydrogen is, it could still be a reasonable transportation fuel.

      What it would take is a lot of very, very, cheap electricity, the kind which might be generated through a series of thousands of small and medium sized hydropower stations built alongside (but not in) America's rivers and stored in the recently mentioned sulfur sodium batteries (http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=10/04/07/022250). Using this proven, if unexciting technology, enough power could be generated to create hydroge

  • I am sorry this is not the full story. It requires a large amount of energy to seperate Hydrogen and Oxygen in water molecules. You get that energy back when you burn them together and get water. But you have to input energy in there somewhere. It is thermodynamics.
    • You’re right, and I’m one of the first to cry foul when somebody starts touting hydrogen as the miracle fuel. “Just split water,” they claim, “and you can get as much hydrogen as you need!” And yes, they usually fail to recognise that splitting water in the first place requires more energy than burning the hydrogen will produce (yes, more: you’ll never do it 100% efficiently).


      Solar cells harness the sun’s energy and convert it to electrical energy, but

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by optikos ( 1187213 )
      Oh, great! Now you've convinced us that this virus is going to suck all of that massive amount energy from the surrounding water causing the oceans to freeze (until Mr. Global Explosion lights his match). Concurrent doomsday scenarios, where one doomsday triggers other concomitant doomsdays: 1) If the lack of water doesn't get us, then 2) the massize cooling will get us, or else 3) the Hindenberg-like atmosphere fire will surely finish us off.
  • M13? (Score:3, Funny)

    by KlomDark ( 6370 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @04:01PM (#31821606) Homepage Journal

    I didn't know that was a bacterial virus, I thought it was a plant. Who knew? Wow!

  • In Soviet Russia Viruses Harness MIT Researchers To Split Water.

    I don't know why, I must be really sleepy to go for the old 'Soviet Russia' gig and not with a better suitable naked and petrified Natalie Portman is pouring hot water splitting Viruses down MIT Researchers Pants.

    Oh .... this is bad.

  • To be cost-competitive with other approaches to solar power, he says, the system would need to be at least 10 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis, be able to repeat the reaction a billion times, and use less expensive materials. “This is unlikely to happen in the near future,” he says. “Nevertheless, the design idea illustrated in this paper could ultimately help with an important piece of the puzzle.”

    “Unlikely”? That’s quite an understatement.

    For perso

  • Am I the only one that whenever they hear of these types of technology (virus batteries, gmo food, virus water molecule splitting), gets the Devo song Mongoloid [ilike.com] streaming to their brain????!!!

  • Think about it... the mythology of things like the Loch Ness monster and fire breathing dragons could be true. If some animal had developed a means of harnessing this sort of a virus to split water into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for FIRE, you could have both in one!
  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:08PM (#31822618)
    If you've made it this far down, you've waded through a river of bullshit. From the half-cocked fear mongering Luddites, past the post-intellectuals joking about doomsday, over the no-news-is-new crowd that already knew about this, to the same old arguments we have about oil and alternative energy.

    So congrats, you owe yourself a beer. Now get back to work.

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle