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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 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!

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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