Plant Sugar facilitates a Breakthrough in Mass Hydrogen Production

Researchers at Virginia Tech have discovered a way of extracting large quantities of hydrogen from the plant sugar xylose; a method which could lead to mass production of the renewable fuel source within only a few years, marking the beginning of a “hydrogen economy”.

The new production process is both cost-effective and environmentally-friendly, utilising only renewable energy sources and emitting almost no greenhouse gases. The quality and volume of hydrogen produced is much higher than previous processes using biomass, many of which yielded poor-quality hydrogen at high costs. The team of researchers headed by Professor Y.H Percival Zhang, associate professor of biological systems engineering, have been working for seven years on unconventional ways to produce pure hydrogen gas without the aid of fossil fuels. According to Angewandte Chemie (Applied Chemistry), the internationally renowned journal which featured the breakthrough, 50 million metric tons of hydrogen is produced each year through the burning of fossil fuels and, as Zhang himself states, this does not really make sense. His new method is such an innovation because the production itself is as environmentally-friendly as the fuel produced.

The discovery described as a “game-changer”, utilises xylose (the second most prevalent sugar in plants), polyphosphate and a blend of artificially isolated enzymes from other microorganisms. When combined with xylose and polyphosphate, this synthetic mixture of enzymes allows more hydrogen to be released from the plant sugar than was previously possible. This means three times more hydrogen is produced from xylose than from any other microorganism. The process is cost-effective, utilising a common plant sugar; requiring temperatures as low as 122 degrees Fahrenheit alongside normal atmospheric pressure.  The sheer volume of gas that is extracted at these low production costs means the mass production of hydrogen for use in numerous industries is now more than possible.

Dubbed “one of the most important biofuels of the future”, for years scientists have been aware of hydrogen’s potential when it comes to alternative sources of fuel. The automobile industry is in a race to produce vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells. In the United States alone, the hydrogen industry is believed to be worth $1 trillion and the large automobile industries in Japan and Germany mean that hydrogen will soon be in demand on an international scale. Hydrogen fuel emits only water as a by-product – cutting out harmful carbon emissions and pleasing consumers who are becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprint and the need for economical fuel consumption. Professor Zhang is well aware of the benefits of his breakthrough, stating:  “The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil, and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future”. Indeed, experts believe that, depending on the technology that is available, Zhang’s new production method could be active in the marketplace within as little as three years.

Sources include: Science Daily, Angewandte Chemie International Edition

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