G. Charles Dismukes is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers. He is also affiliated with the Biochemistry and Microbiology Department, the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, and the Rutgers Catalysis Research Center. He has a B.S. from Lowell Technological Institute in Lowell, Massachusetts and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin , Madison. Professor Dismukes is Principal Investigator of the BioSolarH2 MURI team, a group of researchers from several institutions focused on the microbiology of hydrogen.
Q: How would you describe your research?
A: The research in my group focuses on chemical and biological approaches to renewable energy production. Our chemical research focuses on bioinspired artificial photosynthesis for making fuels. Water is a globally abundant resource for creation of hydrogen (H2) based fuels and is inherently renewable. However, water is chemically very stable and cannot be directly stripped of hydrogen easily without using a large amount of energy that would exceed the energy recovered in the products (H2 and O2).
So the only way to use this huge resource as an energy carrier is to figure out ways to use the least amount of energy to efficiently rearrange the atoms to make these desired products. This is the job of catalysts. Catalysts are not consumed or produced in chemical reactions but lower the energy input required to make reactions go and accelerate the rate of conversion. We synthesize catalysts that seek to achieve the same efficiency as natural photosynthetic enzymes and use only cheap and abundant materials.
The second approach that we are working on uses natural and transgenic microbial photosynthetic organisms (algae and cyanobacteria) as cell factories, to make fuels or precursors to fuels in high abundance. Algae can synthesize precursors to biofuels such as carbohydrates (good for making hydrogen and carbon dioxide by fermentation), lipids (good for making biodiesel) and proteins (for methane or coproducts). The energy content of these materials from the perspective of using them to produce a fuel is typically a small fraction of the energy of the incident solar energy that was used to grow them. So we have to figure out ways to increase the yields. This begins with choosing the right energy crop to cultivate. Algae are intrinsically more efficient solar collectors than terrestrial land crops for making biomass. They also have more flexibility in choice of end product made and displace little or no land from agricultural/food needs. So we work with aquatic phototrophs instead of land crops.
Q: What sort of technology do you see ultimately resulting from this research?
A: This will take the form of three types of devices / processes that each splits water into its elements using renewable energy sources; either electricity provided by wind turbine or solar PV in a remote location, or an integrated system which combines the PV element directly with the catalysts. Q: How would this technology potentially change the energy infrastructure we have now? We plan to produce renewable fuels from water, either hydrogen as is, or use it to fix CO2 to liquid fuels including methanol for use in fuel cells or for making CO which is a feedstock that can be used to make many types of hydrocarbon based fuels similar to fossil fuels.
Q: How is this research important to our energy future?
A: We earthlings are on a collision course with geological destiny that is forecasted in the laws of thermodynamics. Our addiction to fossil energy and historical unwillingness as individuals to adopt energy efficiency and sustainable practices is accelerating the day when this limited resource will be unavailable as a fuel. We have seen many warnings over the last two decades. Now we are seeing the most recent example of the devastating environmental impact of oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. There will be no protection from the social anarchy that lies in the future if we do not stop this addiction; not for the politicians, not for the oil executives, not for the uninformed/disengaged citizen, not for the minority of true believers. Earth is on course for its inevitable geological destiny much faster than expected. The big surprise is that humans, the chosen ones, are the ones accelerating it.