As part of our outreach activities, the 2015 Macquarie University iGEM team explored the prospects of implementing the photosynthetic components that are being built in the lab, as part of a business venture. The aim was to design a bioreactor for the production of hydrogen gas, using purified photosynthetic molecules which are being developed in E. coli, and coupling these with a hydrogenase enzymes. The gas produced would then be purified, compressed, and used as a clean, sustainable fuel source.
To construct a viable business plan, we had to consider what market we would compete in, and what separates us from current competitors, how we would function in this market, the economical risks involved, and prototype design. A structured business implementation plan was formed using extensive research, and discussion with key opinion leaders.
Several advantages for our project have been identified, in relation to current players in the market. Hydrogen gas is a carbon-neutral, non-polluting, and inexhaustible, making it a favourable candidate for an alternative source of fuel. While currently, several methods of hydrogen production exist, such as derivation from hydrocarbons using thermochemical methods, water splitting using electrolysis, and the use of algal ‘factories’, producing hydrogen through photosynthesis, our advantages lie in cost effectiveness, compared to electrolysis and thermochemical methods, as well as the simplicity of culturing, and genetically modifying E. coli to make the proteins on a large scale, and more durable when exposed to abiotic stressors. Furthermore the genes developed in the lab, and their products can be patented.
Renewable energy systems have drawn a large amount of consumer interest, and investments, to drive innovation of products, and market growth in this area. The successful development of hydrogen producing E. coli within an enclosed system would be beneficial in terms of modular energy production, and gas storage. Elements such as business opportunities, market growth, strengths, and risks have been evaluated, based on research to develop a sound strategic plan, as well as consider future prospects for this project.
Team Macquarie 2015 consulted several key opinion leaders from various related fields to gain professional industry perspectives, and critically evaluate our project. The information gained was used to cultivate our project design, and determine how it might be applied in a business setting.
Our business implementation plan involved designing a prototype which would enable viable and efficient hydrogen production, using chlorophyll molecules and photosystem II developed in E. coli, coupled with hydrogenases. The Hydrogen Hero has been designed to be a modular, self-sufficient bioreactor, and was heavily influenced by research, and feedback from several key opinion leaders.
When embarking on a business venture, there are several risks involved, and these too had to be considered. Such risks typically fall into financial, legal, market, technical, and systematic categories. For the business plan to be successful, these risks need to be managed, and potentially eliminated entirely.
Ultimately, iGEM teams from Macquarie University have been developing photosynthetic E. coli over the past three years, and will continue to advance this project in the coming years. The hope is that this project will be successful, and eventually the molecules produced in E. coli could be a viable solution to the coming global energy crisis, and the need for clean, sustainable energy.