Seeking new ways to fill space shuttle gas tanks, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is paying a scientist to learn whether bacteria from lake-bottom muck can change sunlight into large amounts of hydrogen fuel.
"They're just curious to find out if it is going to be feasible at all," said Bionetics Corp. microbiologist Richard F. Strayer, who envisions the possibility of growing large amounts of hydrogen-producing bacteria in shallow pools covering 60 acres of land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
But bacteria fuel-powered shuttle launches are at least decades away, Strayer said as he outlined his research at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.
Strayer said that NASA has paid him $30,000 for the project for the year ending in October and that he expects to receive another $30,000 to continue the study after that.
Each shuttle is launched into orbit by oxygen and 220,000 pounds of hydrogen in its external fuel tank, with help from boosters carrying solid rocket fuel.
Hydrogen fuel now is extracted from natural gas in New Orleans and shipped to the shuttle's Florida launch site, said William M. Knott, co-author of Strayer's study and biological sciences officer at Kennedy Space Center.
"Most of us are still kind of guardedly pessimistic" about the feasibility of using hydrogen-producing bacteria, Knott said in a telephone interview from Florida. "But we think it at least deserves a sufficient examination."
The bacteria belong to a group named rhodopseudomonas , which, unlike most bacteria, perform photosynthesis to obtain nutrients from sunlight. While plants make oxygen through photosynthesis, the bacteria produce hydrogen.