Breakthrough in Hydrogen Fuel Production Could Revolutionize Alternative Energy Market

A team of Virginia Tech researchers has discovered a way to extract large quantities of hydrogen from any plant, a breakthrough that has the potential to bring a low-cost, environmentally friendly fuel source to the world. New process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels.

They succeeded in using xylose (in general, any source of biomass), the most abundant simple plant sugar, to produce a large quantity of hydrogen that previously was attainable only in theory. This new environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizes renewable natural resources, releases almost no zero greenhouse gasses, and does not require costly or heavy metals. Previous methods to produce hydrogen are expensive and create greenhouse gases. Obstacles to commercial production of hydrogen gas from biomass previously included the high cost of the processes used and the relatively low quantity of the end product.

The team liberates the high-purity hydrogen under mild reaction conditions at 122 degree Fahrenheit and normal atmospheric pressure. The biocatalysts used to release the hydrogen are a group of enzymes artificially isolated from different microorganisms that thrive at extreme temperatures, some of which could grow at around the boiling point of water.

The researchers chose to use xylose, which comprises as much as 30 percent of plant cell walls. Despite its abundance, the use of xylose for releasing hydrogen has been limited. The natural or engineered microorganisms that most scientists use in their experiments cannot produce hydrogen in high yield because these microorganisms grow and reproduce instead of splitting water molecules to yield pure hydrogen.

The commercial market for hydrogen gas is now around $100 billion for hydrogen produced from natural gas, which is expensive to manufacture and generates a large amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The authors think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy.