Eggs, as a food source, are famous for being nutrient-dense and highly versatile. Now, thanks to a group of Japanese scientists, eggs may soon be known for something completely different: clean energy.
It isn’t the entire egg, of course. Rather, the scientists, led by Professor Yusuke Yamada at Osaka City University, used an isolated protein from the white of the egg as a way to improve the process of creating hydrogen. Many experts today view hydrogen as the ultimate clean energy source, but creating enough hydrogen for practical use has always been challenging. Yamada says that their work with the egg protein is progress towards the goal of producing hydrogen from water.
Why use hydrogen for clean energy?
Hydrogen has a lot to offer in the world of clean energy, which is why any method to produce it more efficiently is so significant. When hydrogen reacts with oxygen, it produces electricity, which would then be used to power whatever device the fuel was used for. But even more important are the products of that chemical reaction: water and heat. This makes it arguably the most environmentally friendly energy source known to man, since it does not produce any carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases that get trapped in the atmosphere and lead to climate change.
The trick has always been producing the hydrogen—reversing the reaction to create hydrogen and oxygen from water requires a great deal of energy. For this reason, when large amounts of this gas are needed, it usually comes from fossil fuels or natural gas in a process that does cause harmful emissions.
Proteins as a tool for clean energy production
Methods for producing hydrogen without carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) do exist, but they come with their own challenges. In Yamada’s egg protein work, they used what is called a photocatalytic hydrogen evolution system. Essentially, this is a reaction to produce hydrogen that uses a catalyst to reduce the amount of energy needed, triggered by light energy.
The problem was getting all of the players involved coordinated. With the catalyst molecules and the photosensitizer molecules moving around randomly in the liquid mixture, the chances of everyone coming together the right way and making the reaction happen were not that great.
And this is where the egg protein steps in: the protein crystal has lots of tiny pores to hold things in place, improving the activity of the hydrogen evolution reaction.
If you are really into environmental science or chemistry, you can find Yamada’s egg protein clean energy paper in the February edition of the journal Applied Catalysis: B Environmental.