What’s brewing in Caye Drapcho’s bioreactor may well be a fuel of the future. Drapcho, a biosystems engineer at Clemson University, is investigating a bacterium that produces hydrogen. The microbe is called Thermotoga neapolitana. And it has a taste for peaches, especially rotten ones.
“Working with the South Carolina Peach Council, we have found that peaches not suited for consumer sale can be converted to a biofuel by this bacteria,” said Drapcho.
An extremophile, the microbe thrives in conditions that would kill most life forms. It flourishes at temperatures slightly less than the boiling point of water and in mineral-rich, deep-ocean heat-vents near volcanoes. In the laboratory scientists have discovered that T. neapolitana is very industrious.
“This microbe produces gas byproducts that can contain as much as 80 percent hydrogen, though typically it produces hydrogen in the 25 percent to 30 percent range, which is still impressive,” said Drapcho.
The South Carolina Peach Council is funding research by Drapcho and graduate assistant Abhiney Jain. There are more than 200 million pounds of peaches harvested annually in South Carolina – the nation’s No. 2 peach producer behind California – and approximately 20 million pounds of peach are discarded yearly, according to the Peach Council. Peach waste has substantial organic value with a high percentage of sugars that can be converted to hydrogen gas by bacteria.
The research can help provide the means to make the earth’s most abundant gas into an abundant fuel. Hydrogen has the potential to help replace oil, while nearly zeroing out carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells create electricity, leaving water as the only byproduct.
“We have a long way to go before today’s research becomes tomorrow’s fuels. But we are moving forward toward a sustainable future,” said Drapcho.