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New Breakthrough May Be Key for Hydrogen-Powered Cars

SciencelabThe automotive industry is going through some rapid changes these past few years. Already, we’re seeing some ingenuity like 3D printers making cars and students turning their car into a solar-electric record breaker.

But now, a team of researchers from Virginia Tech may have just made the breakthrough that car makers and drivers have been waiting for!

This research team has discovered a way to create hydrogen fuel using a biological method that greatly reduces the time and money it takes to produce the zero-emissions fuel.

These new findings, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help speed the arrival of hydrogen-powered vehicles in a way that is inexpensive and has extremely low carbon emissions. If this discovery can be implemented into our automotive industry, we could see zero-emission, hydrogen powered cars on the market in no time!

“We have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy – producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources,” said Percival Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. And what are these “local biomass resources?” According to, the answer is corn.

Joe Rollin, a former doctoral student of Zhang’s at Virginia Tech and co-founder of the start-up company Cell-free Bioinnovations, helped make the breakthrough by using dirty biomass—the husks and stalks of corn plants—to create their fuel rather than using highly processed sugars like other methods do. This not only reduces the initial expense of creating the fuel, it enables the use of a fuel source readily available near the processing plants, making the creation of the fuel a local enterprise.

Rollin used a genetic algorithm to analyze each step of the enzyme process that breaks down corn stalks and husks into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Rollin developed a model that increased reaction rates by threefold and takes place at modest conditions. This means that hydrogen can be easily separated from reactants and enzymes and generates high-purity hydrogen, perfect for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The modest reaction conditions are also signs that building hydrogen generating and fueling stations based on this technology will not cost as much as previously thought.

“Although it is difficult to predict cost at this point, this work represents a revolutionary approach that offers many new advantages,” says Lonnie O. Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels at the University of Florida. “These researchers have certainly broadened the scope of our thinking about metabolism and how it plays into the future of alternative energy production.”

“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,” says Rollin. It also has the potential to change the way we make and manufacture cars here in America, leading to even more jobs in the coming years. Science is leading the way to a brighter, cleaner future and now is the time to get in and drive!

photo credit: Bio Lab via photopin (license)

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