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Sugar to Hydrogen: Meeting the World’s Clean Energy Needs

Hydrogen is one of the most efficient fuels in the world. It has a far higher energy density than gasoline, and is three times as energy efficient, making it the fuel of choice for NASA to power its space shuttles. It is also incredibly clean, producing only H2O as waste.

The problem is that hydrogen is very difficult to produce on a large scale, and this prevents it from making a significant contribution to the global energy mix. In fact cheapest methods currently available for producing hydrogen involve extracting it from fossil fuels, such as natural gas, which creates carbon emissions, and negates any environmental advantages.

Scientists are trying to develop new methods for creating large amounts of hydrogen for low cost, but Percival Zhang, a professor of bioengineering at Virginia Tech Institute, has stated that the scientists slow progress is in part due to their lack of imagination.

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He says that he has been researching a new method that involves one of the most abundant natural resources on the planet – sugar.

Percival Zhang
Percival Zhang. (Virginia Tech News)

The biomass stored in trees, plants, and other organic waste, is currently used to create biofuel, but he states that the starch and natural sugars in the biomass can be turned into hydrogen at a relatively low cost.

Zhang said that in 2011 the US consumed 134 billion gallons of gasoline, but that his technology is efficient enough to mean that “just 700m pounds [317,500 tonnes] of biomass would be enough to replace the whole yearly [gasoline] production.”

Currently the US produces around 157 million tonnes of biomass a year from crop residue, and that figure, including residue from forests and other biomass sources, is estimated to grow to 680 million tonnes a year by 2030. More than enough to meet transport fuel demand.

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Zhang explained to the Guardian that at the moment hydrogen is produced by either “heating fossil fuels, such as methane, or by separating water into oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis.” The first method is polluting, and the second is very expensive. “We can now produce hydrogen from every kind of agricultural waste, from cornstalk to wood chips. These residues have no use in the industry and cannot be recycled.”

After years of study Zhang has managed to produce an artificial cocktail of enzymes that can digest biomass to produce sugars and extract hydrogen. He claims that his enzymes are able to extract a high-purity hydrogen at three times the rate as other microorganisms.

By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com



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