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New way to create fuel may make hydrogen cars more viable

A new way to create hydrogen fuel with a biological process using corn could greatly reduce the time and money it takes to produce the fuel, Virginia Tech scientists say.

The team’s findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlike other hydrogen fuel production methods that rely on highly processed sugars, the new process used dirty biomass – the husks and stalks of corn plants – to create their fuel as an enzymatic process breaks that material down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

This reduces the initial expense of creating the fuel as well as providing a source near the processing plants, making the creation of the fuel a local enterprise.

It could help speed the widespread arrival of the hydrogen-powered vehicles in a way that is inexpensive and has extremely low carbon emissions.

“This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy – producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources,” said Percival Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, which is in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering.

The team already has received significant funding for the next step of the project, which is to scale up production to a demonstration size.

“Although it is difficult to predict cost at this point, this work represents a revolutionary approach that offers many new advantages,” said Lonnie O. Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels at the University of Florida, who is familiar with the work but not associated with the team. “These researchers have certainly broadened the scope of our thinking about metabolism and how it plays into the future of alternative energy production.”

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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