Discovery Means New Potential for Hydrogen from Plants
- April 10, 2013
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Monumental breakthroughs in renewable energy research are happening at Virginia Tech. Scientist Y.H. Percival Zhang and his team have discovered a way to cheaply produce mass quantities of hydrogen using only xylose, a simple sugar abundant in plants. The process has potential to mass produce hydrogen fuel in an economical and environmentally friendly for the first time. Conventional methods of producing hydrogen use natural gas and release a great deal of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Zhang’s process has the potential to change that. “This new environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizes renewable natural resources, releases almost no greenhouse gasses, and does not require costly or heavy metals,” reports Virginia Tech.
The process is best summarized as the release of pure hydrogen by combining xylose and a mix of enzymes (all produced by the E. coli bacterium) developed by Zhang’s team. The enzymes react and release large amounts of high purity hydrogen from the sugar. The high hydrogen yield is the result of the xylose splitting water molecules inside the plant. Any source of biomass can be used for this process, Virginia Tech reports.
A problem plaguing the hydrogen fuel industry is the difficulty of storing hydrogen. Pure hydrogen requires either very high pressure tanks or cryogenic temperatures for storage and transportation. A third option is to store hydrogen in other materials, and Zhang already has ideas for storing hydrogen in carbohydrate. This essentially turns hydrogen fuel into nothing more harmful than a bag of sugar. When the enzymes are added inside a fuel cell, the hydrogen gas is released and goes to work powering the cell. This process would work almost exactly how gas powered cars operate now, with a battery providing instant energy for starting the car, and the hydrogen fueled cell recharging the battery later on using excess energy produced by the fuel cell reaction.
This chemical reaction occurs at a very low temperature, requiring only 122 degrees Fahrenheit and normal atmospheric pressure. Virginia Tech explains the significance of this; “[the] reaction occurs at low temperatures, generating hydrogen energy that is greater than the chemical energy stored in xylose and the polyphosphate. The result is energy efficiency of more than 100 percent — a net energy gain. That means that low-temperature waste heat can be used to produce high-quality chemical energy hydrogen for the first time.”
Not only does this method produce an environmentally friendly renewable fuel, but it uses only renewable resources as well. As Zhang himself professes, “It really doesn’t make sense to use non-renewable natural resources to produce hydrogen. We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy.”
Currently there is a $100 billion commercial market for natural gas produced hydrogen. This hydrogen gas is primarily used industrially in fertilizer and petrochemical manufacturing. Zhang’s method of inexpensively producing hydrogen from renewable materials has the potential to revolutionize the industry, providing cheap hydrogen for both stationary fuel cells and for vehicles. Virginia Tech reports that this process could be commercially viable in as quickly as three years, depending on available technology.
Will hydrogen become the new fuel of the future? We may have to wait a few years to find out, but we can certainly anticipate exciting new developments for the hydrogen industry in the wake of this discovery.