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Percival Zhang, a scientist at Virginia Tech, leads the team which is researching the enzymatic method of hydrogen production, which they claim now holds the current record for efficiency.  (Source: Virginia Tech.)
New process emulates nature to yield most efficient hydrogen production yet

Hydrogen production is one of the hottest research topics at the present.  With fossil fuel facing inevitable depletion, researchers are in a scramble, investigating hydrogen, synthetic gas, and other forms of energy fixation and production fixing solar energy into a fuel source.  There remains many exotic methods of hydrogen production from alloy catalysis of water, to photosynthetic cells that emulate nature by using light absorbing pigments.

Now scientists with Virginia Tech, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Georgia claim to have developed the most cost-effective and efficient hydrogen production process yet.  In the new process sugar, water, and a cocktail of 13 power enzymes are combined to yield carbon dioxide and hydrogen under mild reaction conditions.

The research was reported before The American Chemical Society, a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress, which aims to further chemistry research and claims to be the world's largest scientific society.  The research, according to the researchers, will help to eliminate the hurdles which the hydrogen economy faces-- production, storage, and distribution.  By relying on sugar the latter problems could be solved and production would be as simple as using the researcher's production method.

Lead researcher Y.-H. Percival Zhang, Ph.D., a biochemical engineer at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va states, "This is revolutionary work.  This has opened up a whole new direction in hydrogen research. With technology improvement, sugar-powered vehicles could come true eventually."

The group points out that current production methods from natural gas, that hope to fuel the limited developing fleet of fuel cell hydrogen cars, such as the Honda Civic FCX, are too expensive and inefficient to ever see widespread use.  Microbial production remains a promising alternative, but the yield levels are too low to currently be of much use.

Zhang and his fellow researchers are strong proponents of using biomass to produce hydrogen via enzyme catalyzed reactions.  The researchers have succeeded already in catalyzing the reaction of starch, and believe they can achieve hydrogen production from cellulose as well. 

In the groups experiments, starch from plant mass was combined in water with 13 different, well-known enzymes.  The mixture was left to react at 86 F.  The results was a mixture of pure carbon dioxide and hydrogen.  The process produces less pollution than traditional energy production as it does not yield nitrate or sulfate pollutants.  The new method is known as “in vitro synthetic biology" as it uses enzymes.  While it did produce three times the theoretical yield of anaerobic fermentation, Zhang says much work needs to be done to up the speed of the reaction and further up the yield percentage in order to make it commercially viable.

The currently plan of attack for Zhang and his team is to look for higher temperature enzymes and carry the reaction out under a higher temperature, in order to increase the reaction speed.  Enzymes are typically very temperature sensitive as they are normally proteins, which denature when in an environment with too extreme temperature or pH.  The researchers also hope that by replacing several enzymes they can enable cellulose processing.

Zhang thinks that one day people will go to the grocery store and buy cellulose/starch packs to power their cars.  These packs will be converted enzymatically into hydrogen, with little pollution, and carry the drivers to their destinations.  Alternatively he states, a fuel-station style infrastructure could also develop.

How long until this technology is avialable?  The team estimates that it will take 8 to 10 years to optimize the production to where it is competitive for automobiles, so don't hold your breath.  The team also aims to create a scaled down version of the tech for small sugar-powered batteries for MP3 players and other small electronics.  Its planned batteries will be similar to those developed by Sony or the methanol version champion by MTI Micro, which are being sold commercially next year.  The battery technology will be deploying in a closer 3 to 5 years, so hopefully at least in the near future the realization of the technology will allow you to be rocking out to The Sugarcubes on your sugar powered MP3 player.

The research is being funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science of Virginia Tech.

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Yeah, but...
By oralpain on 4/11/2008 1:55:44 PM , Rating: 2
What contains more energy, $3.50 worth of gasoline, or $3.50 worth of sugar?

RE: Yeah, but...
By geddarkstorm on 4/11/2008 2:01:53 PM , Rating: 2
Considering sugar is a solid at room temp, and the size of the sugar bags I can get for $1.50 at my grocery store... sugar does (sugar and gasoline should also have roughly the same amount of hydrogens stored in their molecules). But it's getting that energy out of sugar in a usable form that's tricky... if you aren't a living organism that is.

RE: Yeah, but...
By zombiexl on 4/11/2008 2:40:18 PM , Rating: 2
Yes and start using sugar as a fuel and watch the price of that sugar rise to 3-5x what it is today.

RE: Yeah, but...
By FITCamaro on 4/11/2008 2:44:55 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly. Look at the price of corn and wheat.

RE: Yeah, but...
By geddarkstorm on 4/11/2008 2:52:14 PM , Rating: 3
If we can convert cellulose, which is just polymerized sugar, into a usable form, which is what the whole green gasoline movement is about then this isn't an issue as any plant in the entire world would make a fine source.

Come on people, there's no biological molecule more abundant on the planet than sugar. Even "fossil fuels" if they come from plants came from sugar. The hard cell wall that makes a plant what it is and gives it its rigidity? Sugar. Even The hard shell that makes up insects, nematodes, and your fingernails? Yep, a type of sugar. The lubrication for your joints? A type of sugar.

Sugar is highly stable and hard to chemically convert into something usable if you aren't a living organism. However, if we figure out how to do that, then supply issues will be meaningless as any plant, animal, or bacteria could work as a source for sugar.

RE: Yeah, but...
By We Healthy on 4/11/2008 3:53:35 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not sure the prices will rise too high as long as there are an adequate amount of fields

RE: Yeah, but...
By geddarkstorm on 4/11/2008 4:06:11 PM , Rating: 3
Fields of what? Algae? Grass? If we can convert sugar from more than just starch into a fuel source, then we wouldn't be limited to high starch crops like corn and sugar cane. All these researchers need is to add cellulose degrading enzymes to their cocktails and there you go: now you can use grass, weeds, ferns, algae, cacti, wood chips, any plant at all could make hydrogen. It's the rate at which this is done that needs to be optimized, as they say in the article.

Really, where this method would be best suited is being used to chew up biowaste--of which we make quite a lot.

RE: Yeah, but...
By TimberJon on 4/11/2008 5:38:10 PM , Rating: 1
It's not like converting sugar to energy is better than gasoline on a per pound comparison.

Also to note that Internal Combustion Engines arent very efficient...

"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive

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