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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 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
quote:
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!


"The Space Elevator will be built about 50 years after everyone stops laughing" -- Sir Arthur C. Clarke














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