Washington, April 10 : Scientists are developing a new process for converting plant sugars into hydrogen, which could be used to cheaply and efficiently power vehicles equipped with hydrogen fuel cells without producing any pollutants.
Being developed by scientists at Virginia Tech, US, the process involves combining plant sugars, water, and a cocktail of powerful enzymes to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide under mild reaction conditions.
While recognized a clean, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen production is expensive and inefficient. Most traditional commercial production methods rely on fossil fuels, such as natural gas, while innovations like microbial fuel cells still yield low levels of hydrogen.
Researchers worldwide thus are urgently looking for better way to produce the gas from renewable resources.
That's why the researchers at Virginia Tech believe that they have found the most promising hydrogen-producing system to date from plant biomass. The researchers also believe they can produce hydrogen from cellulose, which has a similar chemical formula to starch but is far more difficult to break down.
In laboratory studies, the scientists collected 13 different, well-known enzymes and combined them with water and starches. Inside a specially designed reactor and under mild conditions, the resulting broth reacted to produce only carbon dioxide and hydrogen with no leftover pollutants.
The method, called "in vitro synthetic biology," produced three times more hydrogen than the theoretical yield of anaerobic fermentation methods.
Among the advantages of this new system, it would be cheaper, cleaner, and more efficiently than even the stingiest gasoline-based car.
Unlike cars that burn fossil fuel, the new system would not produce any odors. Also, such a system will be safe because the hydrogen produced is consumed immediately.
According to researchers, the new system helps solve the three major technical barriers to the so-called "hydrogen economy." Those roadblocks involve how to produce low-cost sustainable hydrogen, how to store hydrogen, and how to distribute it efficiently.
"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," said lead researcher Y.H. Percival Zhang, a biochemical engineer at Virginia Tech.
"Alternatively, the new plant-based technology could even be used to develop an infrastructure of hydrogen-filling stations or even home-based filling stations," he added.
"A scaled-down version of the same technology could conceivably be used to create more powerful, longer lasting sugar batteries for portable music players, laptops, and cell phones," said Zhang.