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Old 05-08-2013, 09:17 AM   #1
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Breakthrough in hydrogen fuel production could revolutionize alternative energy market

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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.

“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.”

Zhang and his team have succeeded in using xylose, the most abundant simple plant sugar, to produce a large quantity of hydrogen that previously was attainable only in theory. Zhang’s method can be performed using any source of biomass.

The discovery is a featured editor’s choice in an online version of the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, International Edition.

This new environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizes renewable natural resources, releases almost no zero greenhouse gasses, and does not require costly or heavy metals. Previous methods to produce hydrogen are expensive and create greenhouse gases.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that hydrogen fuel has the potential to dramatically reduce reliance of fossil fuels and automobile manufactures are aggressively trying to develop vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells. Unlike gas-powered engines that spew out pollutants, the only byproduct of hydrogen fuel is water. Zhang’s discovery opens the door to an inexpensive, renewable source of hydrogen.

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.”

Mielenz said Zhang’s process could find its way to the marketplace as quickly as three years if the technology is available. Zhang said when it does become commercially available, it has the possibility of making an enormous impact.

“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.”

Obstacles to commercial production of hydrogen gas from biomass previously included the high cost of the processes used and the relatively low quantity of the end product.

But Zhang thinks he has found the answers to those problems.

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.

The team liberates the high-purity hydrogen under mild reaction conditions at 122 degree Fahrenheit 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.

The researchers chose to use xylose, which comprises as much as 30 percent of plant cell walls. Despite its abundance, the use of xylose for releasing hydrogen has been limited. The natural or engineered microorganisms that most scientists use in their experiments cannot produce hydrogen in high yield because these microorganisms grow and reproduce instead of splitting water molecules to yield pure hydrogen.

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. That means that low-temperature waste heat can be used to produce high-quality chemical energy hydrogen for the first time. Other processes that convert sugar into biofuels such as ethanol and butanol always have energy efficiencies of less than 100 percent, resulting in an energy penalty.

In his previous research, Zhang used enzymes to produce hydrogen from starch, but the reaction required a food source that made the process too costly for mass production.

The commercial market for hydrogen gas is now around $100 billion for hydrogen produced from natural gas, which is expensive to manufacture and generates a large amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Industry most often uses hydrogen to manufacture ammonia for fertilizers and to refine petrochemicals, but an inexpensive, plentiful green hydrogen source can rapidly change that market.

“It really doesn’t make sense to use non-renewable natural resources to produce hydrogen,” Zhang said. “We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy.”

Support for the current research comes from the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. Additional resources were contributed by the Shell GameChanger Program, the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Biodesign and Bioprocessing Research Center, and the U.S. Department of Energy BioEnergy Science Center, along with the Division of Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences, Office of Basic Energy Sciences of the Department of Energy. The lead author of the article, Julia S. Martin Del Campo, who works in Zhang’s lab, received her Ph.D. grant from the Mexican Council of Science and Technology.
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Old 05-08-2013, 09:38 AM   #2
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I have some questions here.

1. What is the energy input V energy received?

2. Since this was done at a university, likely using federal government grants, will this technology be free to all for use, or will it be given to a favored corporate son? [<sarc>]

3. Since effectively using hydrogen will require a method of storage other than liquid, how will this material be stored? I have read about carbon nano structures being used to create a hydrate, which purportedly can sequester more hydrogen per its volume than anything else, but is it economically viable?

4. How many years away from real time utilization is this?
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Old 05-08-2013, 10:35 AM   #3
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...yeah, there's more questions than answers with each "hydrogen revolution" being announced. So far, all of them would qualify somewhere between "outright fraud" and "technologically/economically/energetically impractical".

Good to have some alternative to fossils, to produce hydrogen on an industrial scale (as it is done today), but all other weak points of "hydrogen economy", remain: like ancona mentioned: storage, infrastructure, net energy gain.

I would also add that one: how long do you think it would take to barren the whole fecking planet from anything that's green on it, if we start converting plants into fuel, to put it into our gas tanks and burn the hell of it - even assuming we are able to convert ALL of the biomass' hydrogen into pure H2 at 100% efficiency? What happens to food prices, when biofuels start to compete with food for arable land?

At the end of the day, plants convert Sun's energy (at rather low efficiency ratio, 3-6% effectively, according to Wiki - phew, that makes current PV panels couple of times more effective already per square meter - and you are getting pure, free range, organic ENERGY out of it - electricity!), plus Carbon from atmospheric CO2, plus hydrogen from H2O, plus some other STUFF from soil - into biomass. While the first three are freely available anywhere on Earth (more or less, with water), what happens to the STUFF (above), when we harvest plants, and take them for processing somewhere else? Answer: soils get depleted. Give it decades of modern farming, and soil gets really fucked up.

Therefore, I think that biofuels from plants, is one of the stupidest ideas ever. See how it worked for Britain at the beginning of industrial revolution - they cut down their forests, to power their steam engines, and only switched to coal, when they were done through with forests. And we are consuming orders of magnitude more energy today, than they were consuming back then.

Biofuels from algae, on the other hand, and possibly, saltwater, genetically modified ones - well, now we are talking! It would cost peanuts, in today's reality, to dig canal(s) from seas to deserts, to provide nutrient-rich salt water, to grow & harvest algae, in the otherwise totally unproductive land. I am for it
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Old 05-08-2013, 11:46 AM   #4
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...

I have seen many of these lab experiments re alternative energy never scale-up. It sure would be nice if one of these gets off the ground, yielding a significantly higher energy output vs. input without having toxicity issues.

If there is something here to this study, more will work on it and either find something (which we will hear about) or not.

But, as they say in Texas: "You hold your breath, you die."
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Old 05-08-2013, 05:16 PM   #5
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I'm not holding my breath on this. Hydrogen is damn dangerous stuff - explosive in almost any mixture with air/oxygen. Carbon is nature's way of storing the stuff and not for no reason. The energy density in *all proven existing types* of H storage would be equal to having a car with a 1 gallon gas tank....at best, and it'd weigh more than gas+tank does now, while being more dangerous yet.

Fuel cells still require at least a monolayer of PM (usually Pt/Pd) to operate, though there are some moderately (read, 50% or more less efficient) metamaterials (also expensive to create) on the horizon, maybe, for fuel cells (or it could just be more press release science for funding reasons).

Using just an atomic monolayer of Pt on the fuel cell plates would give you enough fuel cells for the cars in a small state, maybe Pennsylvania. Then what - the world entire supply is done. Ahh specialization - it allows these guys to forget things like that, or never know them in the first place.

Further, other schemes that get more usable fuel calories from plants than this require schemes that make covering the Sahara desert (and our own hot-desert states) with solar panels look cheap and easy - it just takes too much biomass to make that many calories - more sq feet than solar panels per KWh are required.

There is no such thing as more than 100% efficiency in chemstry, unless you create a real perverse definition of the inputs, which obviously, they have. FWIW, you're better off just burning biomass right now than with any other scheme in terms of pounds of plants per KWh. It's at least carbon neutral, since all the carbon in a plant came out of CO2 in the air in the first place. It's merely a shorter recycle time than waiting for them to turn into coal/oil first. The thing is, I strongly suspect that via fossil fuels, once we return all the carbon into the air that was there in dinosaur times, we'll have that climate back again. USA half underwater and so on. Not fun for most.

That would take time, but...it's still a dumb move, an experiment with the planet we can't get off of or hit a reset button on. What if the chances I'm right are only 1%? Is that experiment still worth doing?

So - I see this as "press release" science at present. Time will tell. Hydrogen is for rockets (in liquid form), not cars. On top of the other problems, it's very leaky stuff - you can't push it through say, existing leaky natgas pipes, or it all leaks out. Small molecules are like that, and that's why it and He are used in vacuum leak detection - they get through the tiniest holes fast so you can get a definite answer quickly.

The welding guy who gets me all the other dangerous gasses can't get hydrogen - it's another whole level of unsafe, particularly since it's oderless. I had to go to no end of troubles to get some myself (crazy-ass paperwork), and believe me, the stories about how easy it is to make it go bang are all true. I had a hose pop off a regulator in my shop at about 2 psi (yeah, cowboy plumbing). It was on fire *instantly* which was actually lucky. Couldn't see it, could hear it, then the tubing (which was leaking it through the walls anyway at 2psi - silicone that won't leak air at all leaks H2 copiously) caught on fire so I could even see a flame. If it hadn't caught on fire, it might have built up and destroyed my lab in an explosion. I've since learned how to handle this stuff, but boy, it's REALLY not easy to be safe with it.

Tech (my local school as it turns out) has for example, re-discovered Nitonal a few times...they're not much on hard science or history, despite their name. But like all schools, they suck gov teat and need to produce something someone in .gov even more ignorant will think is progress and give them more money to work on more.
Hence, press release science...it's how they survive.
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Old 05-08-2013, 06:54 PM   #6
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Leave it to DCFusor to cut right to the heart of the matter; Money, and more of it. Especially during the next round of grant writing season.

Right on DC.

Working where I do, I see hydrogen in liquid form on a scale unavailable anywhere else on earth. Period. We have an 850K gallon LH bottle and a 900K gallon LOX bottle on each of the two shuttle pads. This is crazy dangerous shit, and when they are full, there are seven layers of security/safety checks simply to get on the fucking pad.

I have witnessed a 100,000 gallon flare off and can assure you that even though I was a very comfortable 3,000 feet away, I could feel the heat. The flame was two hundred feet and quite aggressive. Add some LOX to that and shit gets real RIGHT NOW.

Same with super oxidizers like nitrogen tetroxide and fuels such as monomethyl hydrazine. I have watched these fuels react and it is absolutely fucking crazy.
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Old 05-09-2013, 05:08 AM   #7
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hahaha - would love to see that, ancona! Myself, in my teenage years, I was experimenting a little bit with electrolysis and zinc + battery acid methods, to obtain small amounts of hydrogen (at atm pressure, maybe 3 liters at a time AT MOST). These were some loudest BANGS and/or viciously burning flames that I've ever produced


(...why it is, that at some development stage, male human being is bound to appreciate loudest bangs possible, I dunno! . But that's the law!)
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