New discovery may be breakthrough for hydrogen cars

April 6, 2015
Virginia Tech professor Percival Zhang (right) and recent doctoral graduate Joe Rollin. Credit: Virginia Tech

A team of Virginia Tech researchers has discovered a way to create hydrogen fuel using a biological method that greatly reduces the time and money it takes to produce the zero-emissions fuel. This method uses abundantly available corn stover - the stalks, cobs, and husks - to produce the hydrogen.

The team's new findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help speed the widespread arrival of the -powered vehicles in a way that is inexpensive and has extremely low carbon emissions.

"This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a - producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources," said Percival Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, which is in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering.

The team already has received significant funding for the next step of the project, which is to scale up production to a demonstration size.

"Although it is difficult to predict cost at this point, this work represents a revolutionary approach that offers many new advantages," said Lonnie O. Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels at the University of Florida, who is familiar with the work but not associated with the team. "These researchers have certainly broadened the scope of our thinking about metabolism and how it plays into the future of alternative energy production."

Joe Rollin, a former doctoral student of Zhang's at Virginia Tech and co-founder with Zhang of the start-up company Cell-free Bioinnovations, is the lead author on the paper.

This work builds upon previous studies Zhang's team has done with xylose, the most abundant simple plant pentose sugar, to produce hydrogen yields that previously were attainable only in theory.

Their new discovery is unique in two ways.

Unlike other hydrogen fuel production methods that rely on highly processed sugars, the Virginia Tech team used dirty biomass—the husks and stalks of corn plants—to create their fuel. This not only reduces the initial expense of creating the fuel, it enables the use of a fuel source readily available near the processing plants, making the creation of the fuel a local enterprise.

Rollin used a genetic algorithm along with a series of complex mathematical expressions to analyze each step of the enzymatic process that breaks down corn stover into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. He also confirmed the ability of this system to use both sugars glucose and xylose at the same time, which increases the rate at which the hydrogen is released. Typically in biological conversions, these two sugars can only be used sequentially, not simultaneously, which adds time and money to the process.

One of the biggest hurdles to widespread hydrogen use is the capital cost required to produce the fuel from natural gas in large facilities. Distribution of the hydrogen to users of cell vehicles is another key challenge.

Rollin's model increased reaction rates by threefold, decreasing the required facility size to about the size of a gas station, which reduces associated capital costs. The dominant current method for producing hydrogen uses natural gas, which is expensive to distribute and causes fossil carbon emissions.

To produce distributed hydrogen at affordable costs, product yield, reaction rate, and product separation must be addressed. In terms of product yield, the use of cell-free artificial enzymatic pathway not only breaks the natural limit of hydrogen-producing microorganisms by three times but also avoids complicated sugar flux regulation.

The team also increased enzymatic generation rates. This reaction rate is fast enough for hydrogen production in distributed hydrogen-fueling stations. The achieved reaction rate is at least 10 times that of the fastest photo- system.

The reaction the researchers studied takes place at modest conditions. This means that hydrogen can be easily separated from aqueous reactants and enzymes. Also, enzymatic reactions such as those being used in this system generate high-purity hydrogen, perfect for hydrogen .

The modest reaction conditions also indicate the feasibility of low-capital requirements for building distributed hydrogen generating and fueling stations based on this technology.

"We believe this exciting technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of cell vehicles around the world and displace fossil fuels," Rollin said.

Explore further: Breakthrough in hydrogen fuel production could revolutionize alternative energy market

More information: High-yield hydrogen production from biomass by in vitro metabolic engineering: Mixed sugars coutilization and kinetic modeling, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1417719112

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gkam
2.4 / 5 (8) Apr 06, 2015
Good, but much of that biomass should be returned to the soil, not converted to fuel.
Nikos
4.8 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2015
In the long run, electric cars will make the bulk of all types of cars.
ab3a
5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2015
So this generates hydrogen gas. Great. However, the energy required to compress the gas in to useful storage for a vehicle is not trivial.

It's a significant step forward, except that the problem of hydrogen storage and transportation remains. However, if it were used on site to generate power with fuel cells...
betterexists
1.2 / 5 (5) Apr 06, 2015
I would love all wild cats, dogs, bears, crocs...All cruel ones going into that dirty biomass mix!
That will in turn enhance free herbivore production which also will go into the pot UNTIL Grass is used EASILY & INEXPENSIVELY for that purpose!
Those Animals are Only for Kids! There are Plenty of Youtube Videos of them Already!
ForConsideration
4 / 5 (4) Apr 06, 2015
I'm no energy expert, so pardon my naivete. But it would seem to me that using such a technology to replace coal-powered plants would be a logical first use. Process it near the plants (reduce/eliminate the storage/transportation issues). Replacing coal with hydrogen would also seem to have the greatest environmental bang for the buck, as coal is much worse than gasoline, right?
Curious what the experts think.
jeffensley
1.5 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2015
In the long run, electric cars will make the bulk of all types of cars.


If battery technology improves, yes and I know much research is being poured into this field. We can't continue to rely on Li however.
PPihkala
2.8 / 5 (4) Apr 07, 2015
This and other energy systems used today will be obsolete in the near future when Solar Hydrogen Trends generator utilizing water and small amount of electricity start making hydrogen for every energy need we have, at half the current generation costs. See www.solarhydrogentrends.com
Pavel F
4.3 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2015
jeffensley The problem with batteries is that they rely on two things: reactive materials for electrodes and (so far not disproved) simple rules ("laws") of thermodynamics. The second ones are good to indicate the maximum output, efficiency etc. The issue is the availability of reactive materials. You mention Li, but this has to be manufactured first before it can be used and to make Li you need a lot of electricity in the first place. The selection of anodic materials is even more challenging and the (concievably) best candidate (fluorine) would not qualify for variety of reasons (toxicity etc.) So we have to chose something less performing...The storage of energy in capacitors could be much more interesting...
jeffensley
2.5 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2015
jeffensley The problem with batteries is that they rely on two things: reactive materials for electrodes and (so far not disproved) simple rules ("laws") of thermodynamics. The second ones are good to indicate the maximum output, efficiency etc. The issue is the availability of reactive materials. You mention Li, but this has to be manufactured first before it can be used and to make Li you need a lot of electricity in the first place. The selection of anodic materials is even more challenging and the (concievably) best candidate (fluorine) would not qualify for variety of reasons (toxicity etc.) So we have to chose something less performing...The storage of energy in capacitors could be much more interesting...


I feel like that's the compromise with solar generation as well. Rare earth materials perform best while silicon (readily available, non-toxic) lags... at least last time I looked into it. I'll have to read up on utilizing capacitors.
ab3a
4.8 / 5 (5) Apr 07, 2015
I'm no energy expert, so pardon my naivete....
Curious what the experts think.


The first thing you learn in this field is that there are no experts. There are politicians, engineers, scientists, business leaders, and so on. They all see different parts of the problem.

Anyone who postures as an expert is trying to sell you something.
samfisherkiller
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2015
Can we please make generators that run on H to recharge batteries to run electric motors in cars. I would love that, and would love to trade up to a Prius that uses hydrogen instead of gasoline.
fay
1.3 / 5 (3) Apr 07, 2015
In the long run, electric cars will make the bulk of all types of cars.

in the long run, we are all dead
Bongstar420
3 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2015
Hydrogen is a loser not due to feed stock cost, but due to the inefficiency of recharge/discharge.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2015
We should be pursuing every avenue to reduce fossil carbon fuel usage, and this looks like a really good one. Hydrogen fuel cells are a mature technology. The big problem is going to be storage; hydrogen is very tricky to store.

The use of "dirty" substrates is a real bonus; it reduces the cost at the front end considerably, since the biomass doesn't have to be cleaned carefully before it's subjected to the enzyme action. If there are enzymatic paths for corn shuckings, how about developing some for raw sewage? That's the next logical step.
Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Apr 12, 2015
I'm no energy expert, so pardon my naivete. But it would seem to me that using such a technology to replace coal-powered plants would be a logical first use. Process it near the plants (reduce/eliminate the storage/transportation issues). Replacing coal with hydrogen would also seem to have the greatest environmental bang for the buck, as coal is much worse than gasoline, right?
Curious what the experts think.


You cannot replace coal with hydrogen. Coal is an energy source. Hydrogen is an energy sink.

Now if you were a forward looking fellow you might consider building 100 1000 megawatt fission plants and using the resultant electricity, carbonless for those who worry about such minutia, to crack H2 from seawater, but then you need a method to transport and store the leaky, slippery, gas.
spo00n
2 / 5 (2) Apr 13, 2015
Water vapor is not zero emission. I don't think we want to be pumping water vapor into the atmosphere either. Electric is the way to go and hydrogen should be reserved for hybrid electric vehicles, where needed.
New nuclear - Thorium or some other safer form- is essential to creating minimum-emission power and transport system.
Jimee
5 / 5 (1) Apr 15, 2015
I hope this method works with other feed stocks than corn, as it might be advantageous to diversify our crops a bit more in the future. I agree that this material might be better used by returning it to the ground, but I also like the idea that the production could be close to power plants to help rid us of coal and its problems. The water produced might be useful in arid parts of the country whose aquifers are already dangerously overused.
TylerH
5 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2015
How much water does it take to produce one gallon of fuel this way?
Da Schneib
not rated yet Apr 17, 2015
Water vapor is not zero emission. I don't think we want to be pumping water vapor into the atmosphere either.
Water vapor is not only benign, but the amount evaporated from the oceans is so vast that anything we do that produces water vapor is negligible. Not only that but it only lasts days in the atmosphere. Not decades or centuries like CO₂.

If you're going to talk about global warming please take the time to figure out how it actually works.
Da Schneib
not rated yet Apr 17, 2015
How much water does it take to produce one gallon of fuel this way?
Good question.

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