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Hydrogen fuel breakthrough could pave the way for clean cars

A new method of hydrogen fuel production, developed by Virginia Tech researchers, could be used in zero-emission vehicles.

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Dr. Percival Zhang (right) and Dr. Joe Rollin in front of their device.

Virginia Tech

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A new breakthrough in fuel production could put hydrogen cars back in the race for clean transportation.

Researchers from Virginia Tech have developed a way to drastically cut the time and money necessary to produce hydrogen fuel. By using discarded corn cobs, stalks, and husks, they have improved on previous methods deemed too inefficient by energy experts. Their research, which was funded in part by Shell, was published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

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“This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy – producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources,” lead author Percival Zhang said in a press release.

Hydrogen is by far the most abundant element, making up about three quarters of the entire universe. In its gaseous form, it is also an incredibly clean fuel. It is combustible – just like gasoline – but instead of carbon dioxide, it produces only energy and water. And we already have the technology to harness hydrogen fuel – many major auto companies have prototype and commercial hydrogen cars, and the first (very primitive) hydrogen internal combustion engine was developed over 200 years ago.

But hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. Pure hydrogen gas doesn’t occur naturally on Earth, so it needs to be separated out of hydrogen-based compounds, such as water. Running an electrical current through water will release free hydrogen gas – but the process, called electrolysis, is usually too expensive to be considered practical. Certain microbes can separate hydrogen fuel out of decaying biomass, but only in tiny amounts. So while they look great on paper, hydrogen engines trail behind their electric counterparts in practice.

But Virginia Tech’s new method could change that. Corn “stover” – which includes the cobs, husks, and stalks – decays into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Using genetic algorithms, Dr. Zhang and co-author Joe Rollin developed an “enzymatic pathway” that speeds up this reaction. By including two simple plant sugars, glucose and xylose, they were able to increase the rate of hydrogen production while emitting an “extremely low amount” of carbon dioxide.

Cost effective and productive in volume, this method could breathe new life into the hydrogen car. Biomass relies on readily available (and usually discarded) material, which reduces initial fuel costs. The method also increases the reaction rate three times over – as such, the fuel can be produced in smaller, gas station-sized facilities, further driving down cost. These facilities could be stationed alongside processing plants, potentially spurring local industries.

“We believe this exciting technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around the world and displace fossil fuels,” Rollin said.

Whether it can make hydrogen fuel commercially viable remains to be seen – the team plans to scale up before estimating the wider costs of their method. But Zhang and company have cleared a major obstacle in the path to renewable fuel.