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1997 Discover Awards: Christopher Columbus Foundation Awards

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Sweet Energy

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Sugar Power

INNOVATOR: Jonathan Woodward

The Discover Awards program does manage to enrich one inventor. For the second year in a row, the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, a presidentially appointed federal agency, has given a $100,000 grant to a Discover Awards nominee to encourage the continuation of research on a specific innovation that will help all Americans. This year’s grant goes to Jonathan Woodward (his photo is on page 8), a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who is employed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.

One day in 1994, Woodward was listening to a colleague describe how he was trying to extract hydrogen from water using only sunlight to power the reaction. Woodward, a biochemist, could appreciate why an economical, environmentally sound method for making hydrogen would be attractive. After all, when hydrogen burns, only water and carbon dioxide are left behind. Hydrogen can power fuel cells, a cheap and efficient method of making electricity, but even though it is part of commonplace water, pure hydrogen is rare.

Woodward had his own idea for how to do it. The main product of photosynthesis is not hydrogen but sugar, he says. So I wondered if there was a way of making hydrogen from sugar. In the library, he discovered that if you mix glucose--a sugar molecule--with an enzyme called glucose dehydrogenase and a compound called nadp, one of glucose’s hydrogen atoms will attach to the nadp molecule, turning it into nadph. In the lab, he set out to reclaim that hydrogen molecule. He experimented with several enzymes before stumbling upon hydrogenase, an enzyme found in heat-loving deep-sea bacteria. Hydrogenase released the hydrogen from nadph as a gas, allowing Woodward to extract it.

Since publishing his results in July 1996, Woodward has been trying to figure out how to break down the process’s only nonrecyclable by- product, gluconic acid. If he succeeds, he could theoretically produce 12 molecules of hydrogen for every molecule of glucose, with carbon dioxide as the only by-product. The glucose, in turn, can be found in cellulose, starch, and lactose--compounds found easily in old newspapers, cheese whey, grass clippings, and other types of waste. Eventually we’re going to run out of fossil fuels, says Woodward, but we’re not likely to run out of garbage.

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