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Discovery Means New Potential for Hydrogen from Plants

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Energy Consultant Energy Curtailment Specialists

Jessica Kennedy has worked in the energy industry since 2008. She earned her bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She earned her master's degree in...

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  • Apr 10, 2013

hydrogen from plantsMonumental breakthroughs in renewable energy research are happening at Virginia Tech.  Scientist Y.H. Percival Zhang and his team have discovered a way to cheaply produce mass quantities of hydrogen using only xylose, a simple sugar abundant in plants.  The process has potential to mass produce hydrogen fuel in an economical and environmentally friendly for the first time.  Conventional methods of producing hydrogen use natural gas and release a great deal of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Zhang’s process has the potential to change that.  “This new environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizes renewable natural resources, releases almost no greenhouse gasses, and does not require costly or heavy metals,” reports Virginia Tech.

The process is best summarized as the release of pure hydrogen by combining xylose and a mix of enzymes (all produced by the E. coli bacterium) developed by Zhang’s team.  The enzymes react and release large amounts of high purity hydrogen from the sugar.  The high hydrogen yield is the result of the xylose splitting water molecules inside the plant.  Any source of biomass can be used for this process, Virginia Tech reports.

A problem plaguing the hydrogen fuel industry is the difficulty of storing hydrogen.  Pure hydrogen requires either very high pressure tanks or cryogenic temperatures for storage and transportation.  A third option is to store hydrogen in other materials, and Zhang already has ideas for storing hydrogen in carbohydrate. This essentially turns hydrogen fuel into nothing more harmful than a bag of sugar.  When the enzymes are added inside a fuel cell, the hydrogen gas is released and goes to work powering the cell.  This process would work almost exactly how gas powered cars operate now, with a battery providing instant energy for starting the car, and the hydrogen fueled cell recharging the battery later on using excess energy produced by the fuel cell reaction.

This chemical reaction occurs at a very low temperature, requiring only 122 degrees Fahrenheit and normal atmospheric pressure.  Virginia Tech explains the significance of this; “[the] reaction occurs at low temperatures, generating hydrogen energy that is greater than the chemical energy stored in xylose and the polyphosphate. The result is energy efficiency of more than 100 percent — a net energy gain.  That means that low-temperature waste heat can be used to produce high-quality chemical energy hydrogen for the first time.”

Not only does this method produce an environmentally friendly renewable fuel, but it uses only renewable resources as well.  As Zhang himself professes, “It really doesn’t make sense to use non-renewable natural resources to produce hydrogen.  We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy.”

Currently there is a $100 billion commercial market for natural gas produced hydrogen.  This hydrogen gas is primarily used industrially in fertilizer and petrochemical manufacturing.  Zhang’s method of inexpensively producing hydrogen from renewable materials has the potential to revolutionize the industry, providing cheap hydrogen for both stationary fuel cells and for vehicles.  Virginia Tech reports that this process could be commercially viable in as quickly as three years, depending on available technology.

Will hydrogen become the new fuel of the future?  We may have to wait a few years to find out, but we can certainly anticipate exciting new developments for the hydrogen industry in the wake of this discovery.

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 12, 2013

The human body makes bones and brains at 100degreesF. Thermodynamics was contrived in the 19th century to explain simple chemistry. Enzymes and hydrogen ions (protons) have nothing to do with “ideal gasses.”

I didn’t read this research effort. But I used to know enzymes and protons, having done research on proton exchange kinetics in proteins at over 100,000psi then shifted to proton magnetc resonance dispersion to validate some distribution function garp.

Enhancing chemical energy using selective optical energy and protons is what biology does. But the blog experts assure us biology does not work. Glad to see some scientists looking in this direction, however.

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Rick Engebretson on Apr 12, 2013

It was rather fun 30 some years ago, working in a lab trying to apply “the postulates of thermodynamics” to temperature/pressure//pH behavior of enzymes and water. Partial derivatives here and there to publish activation energies, activation volumes, acid/base catalysis. The fun began when I learned (then called) solid state physics and could see that all those biochem structures had electrodynamic function. Trying to find anybody who could see an electric dipole in a peptide alpha-helix was impossible, however.

But I took that awareness and figured fiber optic communications and liquid crystal displays was very close to the same near-infrared physics and electro-optics. I got a computer to draw some of the structures, and I’ll always be pleased by a meeting with Otto Schmitt and Bell Telephone and 3M when Otto said (with a big smile), “Who did this?” Thanks QBasic Interpreter on an 8 bit monochrome!

And now I see there is a huge “protein databank” of structures with free 3D software to analyze the physics. And now I hear about “nano-technology” a lot.

With all the science opportunities today, I wonder if there are any scientists left in the US to exploit them? Maybe this described scientist is one of a very few.

Jessica Kennedy's picture
Jessica Kennedy on Apr 12, 2013

Hello, & thank you for commenting!
I’ll attempt to further explain the process. 
Xylose is abundant in all plants – it is present as a main component of several polysaccharides (hemicellulose) in plants. Examples include xylan & xyloglucan, which account for well over 20% (i haven’t looked up the exact number – i believe it is up to 30%?) of plant cell walls. 
from Virginia Tech’s report:
To liberate the hydrogen, Virginia Tech scientists separated a number of enzymes from their native microorganisms to create a customized enzyme cocktail that does not occur in nature. The enzymes, when combined with xylose and a polyphosphate, liberate the unprecedentedly high volume of hydrogen from xylose, resulting in the production of about three times as much hydrogen as other hydrogen producing microorganisms.” 

If accurate it’s an intriguing development.






Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Apr 12, 2013

Perhaps some ancient thoughts apply here. Forgive the cobwebs.

From solid state physics, the concept of “ferroelectrics” describes “ADP.” Ammonium Di-Hydrogen Phospate retains a net electric polarization (like a magnetic polarization). Biology uses “ADP” but it is Adenosine Di_Phosphate (IIRC), and the key energy processes converts ATP to ADP and back again. Further, cell membranes are phospho-lipids and behave like ferro-electrics.

Also, the hydrogen ion is unique since it is just a fundamental particle; a proton. With no volume constraints, protons follow quantum (wave) mechanical tunneling. The acid/base properties exactly compare to electron properties in semi-conductors. And their optical excitation is in the near infrared. Enzymes filter and focus this activation energy to catalyze reactions.

So there is a huge Biophysical Chemistry involved here. The Xylose and enzyme coctail are less interesting than the enzyme structure and poly-phosphate electronics at 122degreesF. From what I’ve seen, enzyme Biophysics has advanced a lot in these concepts.

Perhaps seeing something work will encourage others to figure out how it works. But I would not limit the importance of modifying sugars to hydrogen extraction. The role of new biofuels is interesting to many.

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