VA Tech Taps Plants for Hydrogen Fuel
Earlier this week we covered Virginia Tech's Navy-funded, man-sized robotic jellyfish, but it seems even that wasn't enough news for one week. Now a team of VA Tech researchers have discovered a way to extract large amounts of hydrogen from any plant, which could be instrumental in providing the world a new, eco-friendly fuel source.
“Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Y.H. Percival Zhang, associate professor of biological systems engineering at VA Tech. “Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future.”
Specifically, Zhang and his team have successfully realized what was only theoretically possible until now by using xylose, the most abundant simple plant sugar.
In the future, cars could use a fuel cell that creates energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen. With water and heat as its only byproducts, it's an attractive choice for creating a cleaner, more efficient vehicle. It sounds like a perfect plan, except that hydrogen is not naturally occurring energy source on Earth, which makes Zhang's breakthrough all the more important.
As for the hydrogen harvesting process itself, it uses renewable natural resources, does not require heavy metals and releases almost no greenhouse gases, making it a vast improvement over previous hydrogen production methods.
Jonathan R. Mielenz, group leader of the bioscience and technology biosciences division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, believes that Zhang's process could come to the marketplace as quickly as three years from now. With previous methods, the high cost of the processes combined with low-quality end products have been the main barrier to entry into the market, but Zhang says that he has found a solution to these problems.
A primary focus of Zhang's seven-year process has been the research of low-cost enzymes that could liberate hydrogen under the right conditions. After discovering, combining and engineering enzymes to fit this specific purpose, the team is able to extract hydrogen at a mere 122 degrees Fahrenheit and under normal atmospheric conditions, removing the need for expensive equipment and materials.
The commercial market for hydrogen gas is about $100 billion for natural gas-harvested hydrogen alone, which generates significant quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. But if Zhang's process is commercialized, that market could quickly transform.
Full story at Virginia Tech