Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mushroom Enzyme Could Make Clean Fuel Cells


Even the most environmentally-conscious among us use batteries containing toxic heavy metals on a daily basis. But a discovery made by chemists at Oxford University could one day lead to cleaner batteries for everyone. The researchers recently discovered that an enzyme produced by fungi growing on rotten wood can be used as a cheap and efficient catalyst in fuel cells.

Laccase (the mushroom enzyme) has been shown to have an equal catalytic performance to platinum in speeding up reactions on fuel cell electrodes. The Oxford chemists believe that current batteries could eventually be replaced by portable power sources from laccase-coated electrodes.

The prototype laccase fuel cell will produce 400 milliamps for 2,500 hours—enough for an average MP3 player. However, the researchers ultimately hope to create cell phone-sized batteries created using laccase from genetically-modified fungi. Such batteries would last for 20 recharges.

Batteries produce 200,000 tons of unrecycled waste each year— much of it consisting of heavy metals. If laccase-based fuel cells become a reality, we can feel just a little bit less guilty about using battery-powered electronics.