Though tumbling oil prices have provided a welcome boon to some — certainly, consumers appreciate the return to relatively low gas prices when they pay at the pump — they have had a dampening effect on oil and gas production and renewable energy investments. Cost-benefit analyses and payback calculations clearly do not favor million- or even billion-dollar investments with extremely long return on investment forecasts.

While investments in renewable energy projects may be delayed and deferred, we are fortunate that research continues. At Indiana University, that research has advanced one step closer to the “Holy Grail” of renewable energy: powering fuel cells with water.

As reported in the journal Nature Chemistry, researchers at IU have created a biomaterial that catalyzes the formation of hydrogen. The biomaterial, a modified enzyme, is protected within the protein shell of a bacterial virus. This shell protects the enzyme and effectively makes it 150 times more efficient than the unaltered form of the enzyme, researchers say.

“Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas,” said Trevor Douglas, the Earl Blough Professor of Chemistry in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, when announcing the research. Douglas led the four-member IU team that conducted the research. “The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen.”

Because the biomaterial catalyzes the formation of hydrogen, it moves renewable energy in the form of fuel cells powered by water one step closer. If the biomaterial can be used to cost effectively split H2O to make hydrogen and oxygen, a future with vehicles, homes and even industries powered simply with water becomes possible.

Produced through a fermentation process at room temperature, the biomaterial, called “P22-Hyd,” is biodegradable and less expensive than the rare metals used in other catalyzed hydrogen fuel cells. What’s more, P22-Hyd can be used to both breaks the chemical bonds of water to create hydrogen and to recombine hydrogen and oxygen to generate power.

While P22-Hyd may not be the final answer in renewable, water-powered fuel cells, it’s an important step forward.