Hydrogen cars could soon run on 'dirty biomass'

Green fuel from corn stalks, cobs and husks could power fuel cell vehicles, a team of Virginia Tech researchers has said.

The scientists developed a way to create hydrogen fuel using a biological method, which relies on dirty biomass rather than highly processed sugars, reducing the time and money it takes to produce zero-emission fuel.

Professor Percival Zhang, one of the researchers, said: “This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy, producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources.”

Joe Rollin, a former doctoral student of Zhang’s at Virginia Tech and lead author on the paper, used a genetic algorithm with other mathematic expressions to analyse each step of the enzymatic process that breaks down corn stover into hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

Rollin said the system used both sugars glucose and xylose at the same time, which increased the rate at which the hydrogen was released. Traditionally, these two sugars can only be used successively, not simultaneously.

“We believe this exciting technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around the world and displace fossil fuels,” Rollin added.

By using dirty biomass – the husks and stalks of corn plants – it enables the use of a fuel source readily available near the processing plants, making the creation of the fuel a local enterprise.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday and the next step of the project is to scale up production to a demonstration size.

A report released last month forecasted a substantial increase in the global hydrogen market in the near future as stricter vehicle emission regulations will be put in place.

Analysts estimated that the market value of hydrogen would grow by more than 46 per cent from $96.6bn in 2014 to $141.4bn in 2020.

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