The New Old Renewable Fuel

April 12, 2013 01:57 AM

The search for viable alternative fuel sources has led to energy production efforts that channel wind, water, solar, geothermal, a bevy of biofuels and more. A team of scientists at Virginia Tech University say they have made the next big breakthrough in alternative energy production. They have created an effective way to extract an alternative energy source that’s been around for 13 billion years and is literally a part of the air we breathe – hydrogen.

"Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future," says Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech.

Zhang and his colleagues used plant xylose (a naturally occurring simple sugar) to produce large quantities of hydrogen. The scientists were able to "liberate" the gas by adding a specific cocktail of enzymes and heating the biomass to 122 degrees. This causes the energy stored in xylose to split water molecules into individual oxygen and hydrogen molecules. The process is environmentally friendly, releases almost no greenhouse gasses and does not require the use of costly or heavy metals.

Zhang hopes the process is commercially reproducible in a matter of years, at which point he says the impact could be tremendous.

"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," he says. "Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone."

"It really doesn’t make sense to use non-renewable natural resources to produce hydrogen," Zhang adds. "We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy."

A start-up company, Cell Free Bioinnovations Inc., is working with Virginia Tech to integrate this hydrogen generation process with proton exchange membrane fuel cells. A more in-depth analysis of the Virginia Tech research is available here.

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