Transparent polyvinyl-alcohol cryogel as immobilisation matrix for continuous biohydrogen production by phototrophic bacteria
CITATION: Du Toit, J. P. & Pott, R. W. M. 2020. Transparent polyvinyl-alcohol cryogel as immobilisation matrix for continuous biohydrogen production by phototrophic bacteria. Biotechnology for Biofuels, 13:105, doi:10.1186/s13068-020-01743-7.
Publication of this article was funded by the Stellenbosch University Open Access Fund
Background: Phototrophic purple non-sulfur bacteria (PNSB) have gained attention for their ability to produce a valuable clean energy source in the form biohydrogen via photofermentation of a wide variety of organic wastes. For maturation of these phototrophic bioprocesses towards commercial feasibility, development of suitable immobilisation materials is required to allow continuous production from a stable pool of catalytic biomass in which energy is not diverted towards biomass accumulation, and optimal hydrogen production rates are realised. Here, the application of transparent polyvinyl-alcohol (PVA) cryogel beads to immobilisation of Rhodopseudomonas palustris for longterm hydrogen production is described. PVA cryogel properties are characterised and demonstrated to be well suited to the purpose of continuous photofermentation. Finally, analysis of the long-term biocompatibility of the material is illustrated. Results: The addition of glycerol co-solvent induces favourable light transmission properties in normally opaque PVA cryogels, especially well-suited to the near-infrared light requirements of PNSB. Material characterisation showed high mechanical resilience, low resistance to diffusion of substrates and high biocompatibility of the material and immobilisation process. The glycerol co-solvent in transparent cryogels offered additional benefit by reinforcing physical interactions to the extent that only a single freeze–thaw cycle was required to form durable cryogels, extending utility beyond only phototrophic bioprocesses. In contrast, conventional PVA cryogels require multiple cycles which compromise viability of entrapped organisms. Hydrogen production studies of immobilised Rhodopseudomonas palustris in batch photobioreactors showed higher specific hydrogen production rates which continued longer than planktonic cultures. Continuous cultivation yielded hydrogen production for at least 67 days from immobilised bacteria, demonstrating the suitability of PVA cryogel immobilisation for long-term phototrophic bioprocesses. Imaged organisms immobilised in cryogels showed a monolithic structure to PVA cryogels, and demonstrated a living, stable, photofermentative population after long-term immobilisation. Conclusion: Transparent PVA cryogels offer ideal properties as an immobilisation matrix for phototrophic bacteria and present a low-cost photobioreactor technology for the further advancement of biohydrogen from waste as a sustainable energy source, as well as development of alternative photo-bioprocesses exploiting the unique capabilities of purple non-sulfur bacteria.