Hydrogen has always been regarded as one of the most Earth friendly fuels on the planet. The biggest obstacle to bringing it to the masses has always been the cost of extracting it from its sources. This is the problem that Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor in the College of Engineering and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech University, has been trying to solve for the past seven years. Now, it looks like he has solved it!
Professor Zhang and his team have developed an enzyme that releases hydrogen from the xylose that comprises up to 30 percent of every plant cell wall. The enzyme, when combined with phosphate, breaks down the xylose and releases hydrogen that can be either directly used in a fuel cell or collected and stored for future use.
What makes this find so exciting is that xylose is the second most prevalent sugar in plants. This means that any biomass can be harvested in this way. While xylose has already been tapped for this type of hydrogen production in the past, it always relied on heavy chemicals and was extremely costly. The novel enzyme produced by Zhang’s team is far cheaper to produce and out performs the existing methods by over 200 percent.
Not only is the reaction three times as efficient as the heavy metal extraction process, it happens at far lower temperatures, as low as 122 degrees Fahrenheit. This would allow the process to happen in onboard car fuel cells without a need to run a coolant system through it. Will no need for a coolant, the weight of the car can be decreased and the more fuel efficiency achieved.
Another amazing aspect of this enzyme reaction is that when the hydrogen is released from the xylose via a phosphate, the net energy gain is over 100 percent. This means that the process releases more energy than it takes to produce. The excess energy loss from other methods is usually indicated by the high temperatures of the reaction.
This discovery has the potential to revolutionize the alternative energy landscape. The enzymes that are created by Zhang’s team, although not naturally occurring, do come from readily renewable sources. This makes the hydrogen release a fully sustainable process. Other hydrogen release methods use non-renewable metals as catalysts.
The current market for hydrogen is about $100 billion. This supply is almost all created from processing natural gas – a process that is expensive and releases a large amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By bringing this new method from the lab to mainstream production, Zhang’s team could bring the costs down tenfold and eliminate the greenhouse gas production altogether.
“The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil, and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future,” Zhang said. “Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone.”
The U.S. Department of Energy agrees. They believe that hydrogen fuel has the potential to reduce our country’s dependence on fossil fuels and make our vehicles more Earth friendly. While fossil-fuel burning vehicles release a variety of pollutants, the only byproduct of hydrogen fuel cells is water.
A representative of the Oak ridge National Laboratory said of Zhang’s work, that if the technology is made available, it could be marketplace ready in as little as three years. What kind of impact do you think that might have on the market for hybrid cars? Do you think hydrogen could go mainstream before 2020? Let us know what you think!