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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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By Motoman on 4/11/2008 2:08:39 PM , Rating: 4
...grow more sugar!

...and/or clearcut more rainforest so we can grow more corn to make ethanol for cars!

...or, and this is a really crazy idea, but how about we come up with some "eco-friendly" fuel that DOESN'T destroy the environment ten times faster than what we're doing now?

By jskirwin on 4/11/2008 2:24:00 PM , Rating: 2
how about we come up with some "eco-friendly" fuel that DOESN'T destroy the environment ten times faster than what we're doing now?

First define "eco-friendly" because what the Sierra Club and Earth First! define as eco-friendly differs. Wind farms have been killed in areas by groups who believe they aren't "friendly" to birds, and solar power farms have been opposed for the damage they do to the earth they sit on.

Second, propose an energy source and energy carrier that:
1. Is "eco-friendly" by your definition.
2. Does not require a scientific discovery or engineering feat to implement.
3. Can scale to eventually meet the demand for it.
4. Does not need significant changes to infrastructure.
5. Works at night.
6. Costs about the same as current energy sources and carriers.

By michal1980 on 4/11/2008 3:25:27 PM , Rating: 1
I found it, The north dakota bakken oil field. Along with the colorado river basin deposit. Provide a great source of energy.

oh wait, thats oil... and we know oil is a very good energy source, so we must destroy it.

By Ringold on 4/11/2008 4:01:33 PM , Rating: 5
Second, propose an energy source and energy carrier that:

Nuclear + Chevy Volt.

Oh wait, that actually makes sense, and results in no human suffering. Environmentalists will hate it.

By EglsFly on 4/11/2008 8:50:36 PM , Rating: 5
Looking forward to seeing the Volt hit production. Last I heard it was still on schedule for production in 2 years (2010).

By AmyM on 4/12/2008 11:22:02 PM , Rating: 2
Living here in Georgia I’m happy to say that this last week Georgia Power and Westinghouse Electric reached a deal to construct TWO 1,100-MegaWatt nuclear reactors. We’re waiting for the Public Service Commission to give the green light. It looks as though high oil prices do have a silver lining.

By phxfreddy on 4/12/2008 5:01:07 PM , Rating: 2
Here here!

By geddarkstorm on 4/11/2008 2:24:47 PM , Rating: 5
Sugar is everywhere. Every living organism on the planet is full of sugars as it is the major biological power source. Even fats are produced from sugars. Amino acids too. Cellulose itself is just glucose, but with a special 1-4 beta linkage between molecules that makes it hard to digest. Starch is just glucose but with an enzyme friendly 1-4 alpha linkage. So, plants, like trees, are nothing but gigantic rods of polymerized sugar.

Seriously, mow your lawn and you'll have plenty. Converting all that grass into a usable form? Now that's hard.

By dever on 4/16/2008 6:08:24 PM , Rating: 1
A few people obviosly don't understand that petroleum products come from biomass. Thus the above rating.

By omnicronx on 4/11/2008 2:45:31 PM , Rating: 1
Similar to eletric cars and how just as much pollution is being produced at a power plant, as is being saved with a non-combustion engine, the production of current sources of sugar cause just as much or more damage to the environment than it will to continue using gasoline. EXCEPT for the fact sugar is used in just about every food you can think of, and when sugar prices start to rise because, (which they will, simple economics here) a cake at the bakery is going to cost you 20 dollars ;)

Corn, and sugar cane, the two sources most countries are looking at using come to mind when talking about sources that do more damage than good... Just ask Brazil..

By geddarkstorm on 4/11/2008 2:54:49 PM , Rating: 5
That's talking about starch. Which, is just a form of sugar that happens to be very friendly to convert into energy biologically and thus chemically. If we are locked into using starch, then that is a problem and we run into all the pitfalls you list. If we can convert sugar in general, i.e. cellulose, into a usable form, then there is no problem as any plant at all will do just fine. That's what is important to note when thinking about this.

By jbartabas on 4/11/2008 5:06:05 PM , Rating: 2
The researchers have succeeded already in catalyzing the reaction of starch, and believe they can achieve hydrogen production from cellulose as well.

That's the point that attracted my attention. I am not really optimistic about the starch-way, so it looked promising to me that they believe they can achieve similar production from cellulose (with a good efficiency too??).

But here's the catch ... the ' believe '. I hate to be the party pooper, but until they've got some results, even preliminary, there's not much on this front for me (or I missed something, that can happen too ;-) )

By JonnyDough on 4/14/2008 5:49:20 AM , Rating: 2
With the lack of humans realizing we have a population problem, and a lack of self control when it comes to our numbers, just where do you intend to find land for all of this?

You do realize we just had another massive baby boom that is still ongoing here in the U.S., right? It's time we started to ask ourselves if we're willing to sacrifice our clean air and water and SPACE in order to have more people running around?

I know a lot of people revel in the city life and have to have people around them 24-7 to feel they have value, but I prefer to see trees and sky and go fishing now and then.

We continually tear down natural habitat for development of strip malls, crop fields, and new grazing land for our poorly raised anti-biotic bloated soon-to-be slaughtered sick calves.

What was wrong with having a backyard and raising our own vegetables?

Even if global warming isn't happening and the rainforests of Brazil won't be missed by us, don't you think that we have a responsibility to future generations to not clear-cut ALL of our land as we've been doing? I don't know about you, but I'm not having any more kids.

Why? Because in my 30 years of living I've seen farmland become housing development and I realize that my kid's kids aren't going to have anywhere left to play and explore anyway, except some creepy neighbor's basement. It makes me feel a bit more than a bit sick and dejected.

By glennpratt on 4/15/2008 10:57:14 AM , Rating: 2
If you'd like to avoid the development of farmland, perhaps you should consider not living in rural areas. People who keep pushing out further and further are the reason for that development, population density is almost comically low in the US.

Chances are, if you have your own private back yard and raise your own vegetables, you consume far more resources and water then the average individual. Do you really think growing you own crops is actually an efficient use of your time and our resources? It's a hobby.

Jonny, if you sick about you kid's not having play space, maybe YOU shouldn't be planning on having kids, or at least adopt. In other words, follow your own rules.

By Lightning III on 4/11/2008 3:00:34 PM , Rating: 2
Cool maybe it will help curtail early onset diabeties in children.

oooh and how much oil does Brazil import anyway and maybe that's why we have to import our supermodels from there.

By jtemplin on 4/11/2008 3:27:40 PM , Rating: 2
Heres the deal breaker: Can you GROW petroleum?

By Mitch101 on 4/11/2008 3:41:43 PM , Rating: 3
I hear that algae might be a better source for producing diesel than corn plus it doesn't take corn off the food market.

Either way I'm glad that we are seriously looking everywhere for the next fuel. Bring on Mr Fusion!

By StraightPipe on 4/11/2008 2:50:23 PM , Rating: 2
Seriously, mow your lawn and you'll have plenty. Converting all that grass into a usable form? Now that's hard.

Have you tried smoking it?

//I'm not sure how "energetic" this grass is.
///kinda making me sleepy ;)
////Ahh, but sleep is good.

By We Healthy on 4/11/2008 3:44:56 PM , Rating: 2
Aww, dude! I love internet pot.

Too Many People not enough energy. Atleast it will be renewable in the future.

Yeah, way too many people on the earth. Some of yall are gonna need to get off. I call staying first!

By JediJeb on 4/11/2008 3:07:32 PM , Rating: 2
Sounds like a Horse would solve this problem. It is an efficient way to convert the grass to usable energy, most of its waste could be reused to help grow more grass to power it. It wouldn't need any new technology to impliment. A little bit of infrastructure changes( install hitching post where parking spaces are now) and there you go.

By geddarkstorm on 4/11/2008 3:16:37 PM , Rating: 2
"Yes, I'd like to by that new BHW... no no, let me see the breeding charts for the latest luxury model. Ahh, very nice."

Fortunately there's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat when it comes to energy production to meet our needs. Nothing that drastic will have to happen... I hope haha.

By ThisSpaceForRent on 4/11/2008 5:58:18 PM , Rating: 2
I wouldn't mind having to ride a horse to work. Not to mention you'd totally be covered when you went to the bar. Horse could walk you home. =-)

Off topic, but I had this crazy thought the other day about how much energy we could save by going back to manual labor. The crazy part is if the costs for energy keep rising this may become a more attractive solution.

By Owls on 4/11/2008 3:13:58 PM , Rating: 2
"Sweet!" ok bad pun.

Siphoning gas is going to be a whole lot tastier.

By rsmech on 4/13/2008 9:50:59 AM , Rating: 2
I hardly doubt you could mow your lawn enough to produce anything substantial. If it has been projected that we could turn most if not all of the available farmland in the US into corn production for ethanol & it wouldn't even produce close to 50% of our use. The only way this could work is if we clear cut the forests coast to coast and anything green in between.

The point is that any of these other sources could never be produced in the quantities needed. Could never be produced without impacting our food source or water sources. There would have to be so many different types that if you think the different blends of gasoline per state is bad & impacting cost, how would adding all these different sources be because just one couldn't supply enough.

Another point is that all these impact our environment withing the first phase of production, the source. Plants, organics that must be grown, cut, harvested. On the other hand oil is buried in the ground, can be taken from rocks, the immediate impact is if anything visual. The only world commercially available power sources are oil or electric based off of nuclear power, hydro power, coal. Using organic means will have a bigger impact on life on this planet. All living things will be competing for their basic needs v.s. our need for power.

By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/11/2008 3:33:27 PM , Rating: 2
Why are you so inside the box thinker? must be a superhero tree hugger. I like trees to but you are not thinking this through. If you go to were the rain forest are located then you are wasting time, money and energy just to get the product to it's final destination. Sugar cane will grow just about anywhere that it is warm. For the USA it already grows in state like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana,Texas and similar areas. There are plenty of wide open space in these states (no need to cut into any forest so no need to scream about saving the rain forest, it should not even be in play here.), plus it would create tons of jobs, cheaper table sugar, and cheaper Rum!

By Ringold on 4/11/2008 4:14:06 PM , Rating: 5
You need some econ 101. You take higher demand and somehow end up with a result where things are cheaper?

Truth is, you're already been proven wrong. The appetite we already have for ethanol is partly responsible for the demand growth in corn, and crops have been converted to corn to take advantage of this higher demand -- which has lead to record prices for corn, since the supply can't keep up. Supply thus being reduced for other crops while demand continues to increase for them as well (as global propserity increases), prices rise for them as well. These food markets being international in nature, developing countries have responded to the price signal, slashing and burning rainforest and anything else in their path. They're putting marginal, more expensive, and less productive land under cultivation. That hasn't been enough to meet global demand, though, and prices still continue to go up.

The above isn't even debateable; it's observable fact over the past couple years. Go look at any of the data. Even left-wing groups have come out and said crop-based biofuels are a sham, dangerous -- even a crime against humanity. When think-tanks from across the political spectrum agree on anything, time to take note.

By michal1980 on 4/11/2008 4:43:49 PM , Rating: 1
And you didn't even mention the havoc it causes on other food sourches:

wheat, oats, soybeans, etc. All are now in flux, because farmers are re-balancing their crops for max profit, which currently means there is less wheat/oats/soybeans on the market which causes prices to double if not triple.

And then secondary markets that are effect: beards/cerals/sodas, meat. All because a tree hugger thinks its a good idea to use corn in our gas tank.

and lets not ignore that the best esitamte's say that the energy/oil savings from using corn are 0, and worst case estiamtes, say it costs us oil to burn corn.

Stupidty all around.

But hey man made global warming man, were all going to drown: expect at this rate, we will all starve first.

By Seemonkeyscanfly on 4/11/2008 5:32:20 PM , Rating: 2
Ringold, Corn is the worst plant for growing and getting a return out of it, sugar is suppose to be the one of the best ounce for ounce getting the most product out of what is grown - With that in mind....
1) correct on higher demand will increase price...But then you are not growing enough....Texas is big enough to grow enough sugar to fill this need and still sell for well under a $1.00 lbs for table sugar and we can stop using corn for fuel. You must remember the reverse is true, to much supply lowers cost and we just have to "make to much". So the price of both corn and sugar will go down. Corn because the demand has gone down, sugar because your supply has gone through the roof – while selling fast enough to make a great living as a sugar cane farmer. (assuming you get enough sugar cane farms built and running). You'll learn this type of thinking in econ 106 :)
2) effects of corn are bad when made into fuel and can not get enough out of corn. OK, I've heard this too. But I've heard sugar burns much clearer, grows faster, just plain much better all round for this use....

The questions would be 1) Is it true? (sugar cane many times better then corn) 2) If yes, what will it take to encourage sugar cane farms in open land areas like Texas.

By jskirwin on 4/11/2008 7:46:33 PM , Rating: 2
The National Corn Growers Association states that ethanol production adds about $.30/bushel. Agricultural production has always been cyclical, as shown in this graph

As for supply not being able to keep up, why not? If we've somehow maxed out on the ability to boost corn production, then the price will rise to the point where people will stop demanding it, easing the price.

By AmyM on 4/12/2008 11:11:53 PM , Rating: 4
Nice link you provided, except it is outdated by 12-months. Now you might not think that’s too bad, considering the chart goes all the way back to 1968, but from 1968 through 2007 corn peaked 5 times between $3.00 and $3.50; today it’s at $6.00, give or take a nickel. That’s nearly double the highs over the past 40 years, and it’s happened in the past two years. While I haven’t checked the cause of the highs that put corn between $3 and $3.50 over the past 40 years, I would almost bet that it was due to drought, infestation, or some other cause for crop loss. But today the high cost of corn is certainly from the production of ethanol.

Additionally, the production of ethanol has caused other prices to increase as well. Corn, which is used as feed in the beef and poultry industries, has caused everything from dairy products to meat prices to increase. Last month poultry producer Pilgrim’s Pride announced the closing of 7 sites due to the rising cost of chicken feed.


Ethanol production, in my opinion, is the worst possible alternative for petroleum. While some may argue that there is enough farmland in the world to produce crops for food and energy, the world’s insatiable consumption of energy clearly make the farming of fuel the most profitable venture.

By AmyM on 4/14/2008 10:36:05 PM , Rating: 3
Invalid analysis.

Strange – I do not see the graph pass 2007, therefore it does not go into 2007; if it did, the price would have surpassed the $4.50 barrier. The first week in 2007 corn closed at $3.68 which, I assume, is the mark shown for 2007 on the graph. Therefore the graph must show the opening price of corn for each year, because the last week of 2007 it closed at $4.52; hence, my remarks referring to the graph being outdated by 12 months. As a side note: the graph is provided courtesy of a bio-fuel company – shouldn’t we expect a skewed perspective.
You're giving a conclusions [sic] based on a causality which you cannot prove. "But today the high cost of corn is certainly from the production of ethanol." You can't give causality without actually showing it.

I didn’t know I was required to perform a statistical analysis on the opinions I submit to this forum. But since you bring up the matter of correlation and causality, I’ll submit to you that correlation does not imply causation, however, anyone denying the fact that a causal relationship exists between ethanol production and the price of corn needs a review of Statistics as well as Economics. I suppose you don’t believe there’s a causal relationship between Airline profits and the price of jet fuel either. Or do I need to provide empirical data on that subject as well?

By BansheeX on 4/12/2008 6:11:17 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, ethanol was a massive mistake on many levels, especially government's role in perpetuating it. I live in Iowa where federal taxpayer money is subsidizing corn growers here under the pretense that ethanol is a way to get us off of foreign oil. So government decided to spend our money on what they thought was best (ethanol) instead of letting us decide where the money should go. That's capital taken away from investment in companies developing better methods and spending taken away from producers of other renewables. How many times does this have to happen before people wake up and get government out of the free market? I want to outfit my home with geothermal and get an Aptera. Too bad I can't afford either because of inflation and taxes going to pay government salaries and the companies they choose are best for us. I'm not a child, give me back my money!

By Motoman on 4/11/2008 4:42:58 PM , Rating: 1
...the only bio-fuel scheme that I ever read about that really got me excited was one where some guys put a "refinery" of sorts next to a turkey processing plant.

It took the leftovers (the "offal") and processed it into 3 outputs - water, a powder useful as fertilizer, and a light fuel oil. Apparently, you could process any kind of biomass through the thing - they could tell you exactly how much water, powder, and oil you'd get from, say, a 200-pound man. Or X pounds of whatever BS is leftover that actually DOESN'T go into Spam.

Anybody else heard anything about this? Growing extra stuff to process into fuel for our cars is a losing bet no matter which way you look at it. Our agricultural load on the environment is already ridiculous, and possibly (probably?) unsustainable. But using pure waste products is a win-win all around.

By mjrpes3 on 4/13/2008 7:01:10 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, I remember that. Was at least 2 years ago since I heard anything about it. Be cool to know what happened since... sounded like great stuff.

By TimberJon on 4/11/2008 5:32:13 PM , Rating: 2
Hey smart guy, How about we grow vertically, so that we can get more yield vertically instead of clearing forests?

By Some1ne on 4/11/2008 7:42:07 PM , Rating: 2
The rainforest deserves to die:

Each year, the rainforest is responsible for over three thousand deaths from accidents, attacks or illnesses.
There are over seven hundred things in the rainforest that cause cancer.
Join the fight now and help stop the rainforest before it's too late.

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