Meet Dr. Y. H. Percival Zhang, scientist [left]. He's an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.
By definition, genuine technological breakthroughs, actual gamechangers, are rare. But they do happen, the trick being to recognize when a breakthrough occurs.
In recent years, we've heard about all sorts of alleged breakthroughs in energy science & technology which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be duds which never surface again. Liquid fuels from algae and other wonders of synthetic biology. Fusion reactors. Super-efficient solar cells. Empty promises.
But when I read Science Daily's Breakthrough in Hydrogen Fuel Production Could Revolutionize Alternative Energy Market, I knew that we were looking at the Real Deal.
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.
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.
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.
In short, don't mess with Dr. Zhang!
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...
You Doomers pessimists may have the usual objection about energy returns ... well, get over it...
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.
The chief obstacle to the so-called hydrogen economy has been the difficulty and energy cost of producing the hydrogen.
Hydrogen is likely to be a part of [an] idealistic future, and possibly an important part. A hydrogen molecule [H2] in the presence of oxygen can be converted to water with a release of heat and work. It is difficult to imagine a cleaner energy source.
However, there are challenges. To begin with, molecular hydrogen does not occur naturally in high concentrations; it is only 0.00005% of the air. Hydrogen is normally bound in other molecules, water and hydrocarbons being the most common. Unlike natural gas, molecular hydrogen is not found in large accumulations in geologic strata, either.
This means that hydrogen is not a primary fuel source. Like electricity, it is a means for transmitting energy from primary fuel sources to users. Like electrical power, hydrogen must be produced and transported, although hydrogen has an additional attribute that makes it more attractive for some applications than electricity: it can be stored for later use. This feature makes it useful for powering vehicles and other portable devices.
Current production of hydrogen is about 50 Mt/year [55 million US tons/yr], mostly for industrial purposes in chemical and petrochemical applications. A world economy using hydrogen as a major energy carrier will require a tremendous increase in that volume, as well as a complex new infrastructure for transporting and delivering hydrogen to end users...
Zhang has solved the first problem, the supply problem, at least in the laboratory. But what about commercial viability and scalability? There is optimism, of course.
Hydrogen is conventionally produced by steam reforming natural gas, a process that wastes some of the energy stored in the gas while releasing large amounts of CO2. Zhang’s discovery is endorsed by Jonathan R. Mielenz, the group leader of the bioscience division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory:
“The key to this exciting development is that Zhang is using the second most prevalent sugar in plants to produce this hydrogen,” Mielenz told VT. “This amounts to a significant additional benefit to hydrogen production and it reduces the overall cost of producing hydrogen from biomass.”
Mielenz predicts Zhang’s process could reach the existing $100 billion hydrogen marketplace in three years. It could achieve a potential of a trillion dollar market in the US alone.
We shall see, but there don't seem to be any major obstacles in the way.
The second problem with implementing a hydrogen economy is that the production facilities, the transport and delivery infrastructure, and the demand side of the market (e.g. end users driving cars using fuel cells) basically do not exist, outside a few experiments.
That is not a small problem. If no showstoppers are encountered, I guestimate that it will take humankind about 50 years to implement a hydrogen economy at the scales required to replace most of the energy we get from fossil fuels. This project would constitute the world's biggest stimulus package, with a big payoff at the end. This would be one of those global "Manhattan Projects" you hear about all the time. Unfortunately, the effort itself would require huge expenditures of energy from fossil fuels, and the Earth's ecological health will be deteriorating that entire time. So we don't have 50 years. In fact, we don't have 10 years if we're going to prevent catastrophic warming of the Earth's surface.
And then there are all the human (as opposed to the economic, energy, engineering) problems with implementing a global hydrogen economy within 50 years. In case you haven't heard the bad news, human beings are fuck-ups. Humans think they're hot stuff, but they can fuck up a wet dream, and usually do. I can think of a million reasons why we'll never see a hydrogen economy at the scales required.
So dream on.
But nevermind. Technological breakthroughs do happen. Hydrogen just got a lot cheaper to produce, thanks to Y. H. Percival Zhang.