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.
For seven years, Zhang’s team has been focused on finding non-traditional ways to produce high-yield hydrogen at low cost, specifically researching enzyme combinations, discovering novel enzymes, and engineering enzymes with desirable properties.
In this process, the Virginia Tech team combined a special cocktail of enzymes with polyphosphate and xylose — a simple sugar that’s found in every plant – to extract hydrogen. When combined, the enzymes help to release a high volume of hydrogen from xylose. The process is much more efficient and eco-friendly than conventional methods, and the implications could be huge for the renewable energy sector.
The team liberates the high-purity hydrogen under mild reaction conditions at 122 degrees 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.
“Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering. “Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future.”
“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.”
Current methods of producing hydrogen are expensive and they generate greenhouse gases. If this new method of hydrogen extraction proves to be as successful as initial findings suggest, this new hydrogen extraction technique could find its way to the marketplace within three years.