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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 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?

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