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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 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.


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