Hydrogen “Fuel Cells” in the Deep Ocean

Written by on August 17, 2011 in Technology

Emily Tripp
Senior Writer

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology and the Cluster of Excellence MARUM recently discovered mussels living near hydrothermal vents that have their own “fuel cells.”  Their results were published in the current issue of Nature.

A black smoker in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo credit: NOAA

A black smoker in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo credit: NOAA

These real-life fuel cells are in the form of symbiotic bacteria whose energy source is hydrogen.  This discovery could be incredibly helpful in our search for clean, alternative energy.

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents are found along mid-ocean spreading centers where new crust is created by magma rising to fill space created by drifting tectonic plates.  When seawater reacts with the hot rock and magma, it becomes superheated and dissolves minerals from the Earth’s crust.

This superheated, energy-rich seawater comes back out of the hydrothermal vents into the oceans at temperatures up to 400 degrees Celsius, in the form of black “smoke” that is created when it comes into contact with the cold deep-sea water.

This hot fluid expels hydrogen, in addition to other inorganic compounds like sulfide, ammonium, methane and iron.  The organisms who live in the hydrothermal vent communities use these compounds for energy.  This deep in the ocean, there is no light for photosynthesis so these organisms must oxidize the inorganic compounds to create organic matter from carbon dioxide.

Hydrothermal vents were discovered over 30 years ago and researchers quickly learned that more complex organisms such as worms, mollusks and crustaceans, were able to survive there through their symbiotic relationship with these chemosynthetic microbes.  Until now, only two sources of energy were known to power these communities.  “We have now discovered a third energy source” says Nicole Dubilier from the Max Planck Institute of Marine Microbiology in Bremen, who led the team responsible for this discovery.


Copyright ©  2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC


About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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