Hydrogen-from-corn process has automotive promise

US researchers develop method to make hydrogen from corn waste.

A method for making hydrogen from agricultural waste could greatly increase the availability of the gas as an automotive fuel while also reducing the cost, according to its developers at Virginia Tech. The technique, which uses enzymes from biological organisms use to break down plant sugars, is fast and produces very low carbon emissions.

The research, led by Joe Rollin, builds on work by Percival Zhang, who used enzymes from a variety of microorganisms which have evolved to survive at high temperatures to break down xylose, a simple sugar that occurs in stover – the stalks, cobs and husks – of corn that are normally discarded.

Rollin analysed the steps that the enzymes use to break down the material using genetic and mathematical algorithms, and confirmed that they can also break down glucose and xylose simultaneously.

Known as a cell-free enzymatic pathway, this technique is three times faster than the organisms themselves to breaking down the material, and therefore would need a much smaller plant to provide enough hydrogen to meet the demand of a filling station.

Having demonstrated the reaction at a small scale, Rollin and Zhang now plan to scale up to an industrial demonstration scale.

“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,” Rollin said in a statement.