How sweet it is: 'Revolutionary' process points to sugar-fueled cars

Apr 09, 2008
How sweet it is: 'Revolutionary' process points to sugar-fueled cars
Percival Zhang, a scientist at Virginia Tech, is developing a new process for converting plant sugars into hydrogen that could be used to cheaply and efficiently power vehicles equipped with hydrogen fuel cells without producing any pollutants. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech

Chemists are describing development of a “revolutionary” 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.

The process involves combining plant sugars, water, and a cocktail of powerful enzymes to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide under mild reaction conditions. They reported on the system, described as the world’s most efficient method for producing hydrogen, at the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society.

The new system helps solve the three major technical barriers to the so-called “hydrogen economy,” researchers said. Those roadblocks involve how to produce low-cost sustainable hydrogen, how to store hydrogen, and how to distribute it efficiently, the researchers say.

“This is revolutionary work,” says lead researcher Y.-H. Percival Zhang, Ph.D., a biochemical engineer at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “This has opened up a whole new direction in hydrogen research. With technology improvement, sugar-powered vehicles could come true eventually.”

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.

Zhang and colleagues believe 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 (approximately 86 degrees Fahrenheit), 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. However, the amount of hydrogen produced was still too low for commercial use and the speed of the reactions isn’t optimal, Zhang notes.

The researchers are now working on making the system faster and more efficient. One approach includes looking for enzymes that work at higher temperatures, which would speed hydrogen production rates. The researchers also hope to produce hydrogen from cellulose, which has similar chemical formula to starch, by replacing several enzymes in the enzyme cocktail.

Zhang envisions that one day people will be able to go to their local grocery store and buy packets of solid starch or cellulose and pack it into the gas tank of their fuel-cell car. Then it’s a pollution-free drive to their destination — cheaper, cleaner, and more efficiently than even the most fuel-stingy gasoline-based car. And unlike cars that burn fossil fuel, the new system would not produce any odors, he says. Also, such a system will be safe because the hydrogen produced is consumed immediately, the researcher notes.

Alternatively, the new plant-based technology could even be used to develop an infrastructure of hydrogen-filling stations or even home-based filling stations, Zhang says. But consumers probably won’t be able to take advantage of this automotive technology any time soon: He estimates that it may take as many as 8 to 10 years to optimize the efficiency of the system so that it is suitable for use in vehicles.

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, Zhang says. That advance could take place in as few as 3 to 5 years, the researcher estimates.

Source: American Chemical Society

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User comments : 7

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DGBEACH
3 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2008
Great! An MP3 player that runs on Mars bars! Just what we needed
Star_Gazer
1 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2008
So the byproduct is a Carbon Dioxide - a greenhouse gas. And my guess significant amount of it, since this is an organic process. Is this any better than gasoline then?
Graeme
5 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2008
It's carbon neutral, as growing the sugar cane consumes the carbon dioxide, that is later produced.
TJ_alberta
4 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2008
and the sugar cane will come from ... Cuba? which is, of course better than buying oil from Venezuela
quantum_flux
3 / 5 (1) Apr 10, 2008
[[[[So the byproduct is a Carbon Dioxide - a greenhouse gas. And my guess significant amount of it, since this is an organic process. Is this any better than gasoline then? - Star Gazer]]]]

It may or may not produce more CO2 than gasoline, but it is important to know that gasoline is a very dirty burning fuel that releases unburned hydrocarbons which are actually worse than CO2. Consider, also, that plants will always absorb more CO2 for making the sugar or starch than the enzymes converting the sugar or starch to hydrogen will release, and that is as green as it can possibly get, greener than say a human eating a Mars bar and then that waste product ultimately being converted completely to methane at a treatment plant where it gets burned off in the sludge digestors.
Soylent
not rated yet Apr 16, 2008
It's carbon neutral, as growing the sugar cane consumes the carbon dioxide, that is later produced.


Kind of. At last check the machinery still operated on diesel and the cane still needed fertilizer(some spread between natural gas(N), electric power and diesel(the rest)) and the process generated some surplus electricity and used heat cane waste.
Lord_jag
1 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2008
Yeh... We all saw what happened when we turned wheat and corn into fuel. Prices jumped 10 fold. Guess what will happen to the cost of sugar when we turn it into fuel?