Hydrogen From Plants Touted As Game Changer

Suddenly, hydrogen is happening.

Just a week after Canadian researchers said they had developed catalysts that would vastly increase the viability of hydrogen production by electrolysis – perhaps unlocking new renewable energy storage possibilities – a Virginia Tech researcher team says a new enzyme combination will allow hydrogen to be produced from plant matter in a way that “releases almost no greenhouse gasses, and does not require costly or heavy metals.”

One great hope for hydrogen is as a clean transportation fuel (image via Wikimedia Commons

One great hope for hydrogen is as a clean transportation fuel (image via Wikimedia Commons

Whether either or both of these developments pans out remains to be seen, of course, but together they do inject some excitement into a sector that, in the U.S., had taken a bit of a backseat in the Obama administration’s green drive.

The man behind the reported game changer out of Virginia Tech, biological systems engineering professor Y.H. Percival Zhang, was none too shy about the impact. “Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels,” Zhang said in a statement.

Like everyone else pursuing the elusive hydrogen economy, Zhang has been looking for a way to move beyond the standard way to produce hydrogen – steam reforming, aka steam methane reforming – which is only about 80 percent efficient and not entirely clean.

The Canadians are tackling the hydrogen-production issue by finding a better way of using electricity to split oxygen and hydrogen; at Virginia Tech, the route is to treat hydrogen as a biofuel, mining hydrogen from a plant sugar called xylose. As described by VTU:

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.

The energy stored in xylose splits water molecules, yielding high-purity hydrogen that can be directly utilized by proton-exchange membrane fuel cells. Even more appealing, this reaction occurs at low temperatures, generating hydrogen energy that is greater than the chemical energy stored in xylose and the polyphosphate. This results in an energy efficiency of more than 100 percent — a net energy gain.

“We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy,” Zhang said.

He’s got others in his camp, too. From the Virginia Tech release:

Jonathan R. Mielenz, group leader of the bioscience and technology biosciences division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who is familiar with Zhang’s work but not affiliated with this project, said this discovery has the potential to have a major impact on alternative energy production.

“The key to this exciting development is that Zhang is using the second most prevalent sugar in plants to produce this hydrogen,” he said. “This amounts to a significant additional benefit to hydrogen production and it reduces the overall cost of producing hydrogen from biomass.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply April 5, 2013

    Braeden Cowbrough

    Please can someone fix that quotation or at least he the author to clarify… You can’t hve over 100% efficiency, end of story, it’s not a matter of technology or application, it’s physics we are talking about. If the only energy inputs are the xylose and poly phosphate, then the produced hydrogen would have at most the equivalent amount of energy as the two reactants.

    This is sloppy science journalism if the author didn’t read that and go WTF and ask for a clarification.

    • Reply April 5, 2013

      Pete Danko

      The quote is correct (click on the link in the second paragraph of the story to see the VTU release), and was included because it is a provocative claim.

      There is also a heat input.

    • Reply April 11, 2013

      Tommy Thomas

      I agree, as soon as I read some mistake like that I get a bad attitude towards the rest of the story. If they were going to make that statement they should have clarified what they meant by it to start with, or give us some hard facts of what they put in and what they got out.

      • Reply April 11, 2013

        Pete Danko

        I’m sorry, I assumed readers would understand there was heat input. I should have been more explicit. From the paper: “The synthetic pathway presented here results in nearly theoretical yields of H2 from xylose for the first time. Additionally, this entropy-driven endothermic reaction leads to a net increase in the chemical energy by absorbing heat from the surrounding environment (that is, the combustion energy of 10 moles of H2 is larger than that of one mole of xylose).”

        • Reply April 14, 2013

          Braeden Cowbrough

          The one problem I have had with this method is the actual reaction produces 6 parts hydrogen yes, but 5 parts carbon dioxide which sort of defeats the purpose of this when you think of it? Yes, energetically it is more efficient than carbon dioxide produced from hydrocarbons, but in the end… kind of a meh. For hydrogen production I have always been one for the storage methods. It feel it is a far more appealing method of energy storage than other methods being developed. The article is a bit misleading. Yes, the hydrogen has more energy than the xylose, but what are the costs in the production of the polyphosphate and heat. I think electrolytic H2 production still is slightly more viable if we can develop better and cheaper catalysts.

  • Reply September 26, 2013

    Mike Dornfest

    Watch as the Kings of Middle East fall because of a plant.

    With this knowledge we could create an entire hydrogen based industry with vast fields of these plants that could run everything including our homes and cars.
    A complete overhaul to a 100% no smog world to include all the power to terraform our deserts.

    All it takes is the will to do it, some compassion and a lot of guns for those who’s wallets are about to get lighter.

    Oil is power and they are not about to give up that power by the asking.

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