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PSM Alum Pursues Green-Vehicle Technology

The average passenger car produces more than 12,000 pounds of polluting emissions yearly, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This number could be reduced to zero by discovering an efficient chemical pathway for producing hydrogen—the problem is finding it.

“Hydrogen-fueled vehicles only produce water as a byproduct, but the dilemma is how you go about producing this hydrogen without producing other greenhouse gases,” says Jack Shultz, MS ’06 professional science. Since he was a master’s student at AU, Shultz has been analyzing enzyme reactions in hopes of discovering one that releases hydrogen molecules, thus providing a cheap, clean method of producing the gas.

To date, scientists have discovered one such reaction, which occurs in the Chlamydomonas reinhardtii alga during its final stage of photosynthesis. But the oxygen produced from splitting water quickly damages hydrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the reaction, making this method of hydrogen production inefficient. There may be other enzyme catalysts, however, and analysis of more than 47,509 publicly accessible protein structures may identify one. By running computerized simulations of these naturally occurring reactions, Shultz hopes to identify the key to producing inexpensive hydrogen fuel.

Constraints in time and computing power would make running this many simulations on a standard PC nearly impossible, but Shultz uses a secret weapon: Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). BOINC projects can use the CPU power from a network of project participants’ computers. “Running 47,509 simulations could be a lengthy process,” says Shultz, “but if you have over a million computers distributing the work, then it isn’t so bad.”

Last year, Shultz attended several conferences related to this research, including BOINC’s annual workshop in Grenoble, France, and the American Chemical Society’s annual conference. There, he participated in computational chemistry symposiums on cutting-edge enzyme technology. He is currently applying to theoretic chemistry doctorate programs in order to further enrich his work on this project.