Hydrogen Production by Water Biophotolysis

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The use of microalgae for production of hydrogen gas from water photolysis has been studied for many years, but its commercialization is still limited by multiple challenges. Most of the barriers to commercialization are attributed to the existence of biological regulatory mechanisms that, under anaerobic conditions, quench the absorbed light energy, down-regulate linear electron transfer, inactivate the H2-producing enzyme, and compete for electrons with the hydrogenase. Consequently, the conversion efficiency of absorbed photons into H2 is significantly lower than its estimated potential of 12-13 percent. However, extensive research continues towards addressing these barriers by either trying to understand and circumvent intracellular regulatory mechanisms at the enzyme and metabolic level or by developing biological systems that achieve prolonged H2 production albeit under lower than 12-13 percent solar conversion efficiency. This chapter describes the metabolic pathways involved in biological H2 photoproduction from water photolysis, the attributes of the two hydrogenases, [FeFe] and [NiFe], that catalyze biological H2 production, and highlights research related to addressing the barriers described above. These highlights include: (a) recent advances in improving our understanding of the O2 inactivation mechanism in different classes of hydrogenases; (b) progress made in preventing competitive pathways from diverting electrons from H2 photoproduction; and (c) new developments in bypassing the non-dissipated proton gradient from down-regulating photosynthetic electron transfer. As an example of a major success story, we mention the generation of truncated-antenna mutants in Chlamydomonas and Synechocystis that address the inherent low-light saturation of photosynthesis. In addition, we highlight the rationale and progress towards coupling biological hydrogenases to non-biological, photochemical charge-separation as a means to bypass the barriers of photobiological systems.
Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationMicrobial BioEnergy: Hydrogen Production
Subtitle of host publicationAdvances in Photosynthesis and Respiration, Including Bioenergy and Related Processes, Volume 38
EditorsD. Zannoni, R. De Philippis
StatePublished - 2014

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/CH-2700-61062


  • biological H2 photoproduction
  • hydrogen gas
  • microalgae
  • water photolysis


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