Hydrogen fuel from corn husks could displace petrol

Scientists from Virginia Tech University have found a cheap, efficient way to produce hydrogen fuel using corn waste which could revolutionise law-carbon transport.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by Shell, “has the potential to enable the widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around the world and displace fossil fuels,” according to lead author Joe Rollin.

Unlike other hydrogen fuel production methods that rely on highly processed sugars and natural gas, the Virginia Tech team used dirty biomass – the husks and stalks of corn plants – to create their fuel.


One of the main criticisms of hydrogen cars is that the production of the hydrogen itself can be an energy-intensive process.

But the new technique converts 100% of corn sugars into hydrogen fuel – nearly tripling the efficiency of currently available systems.

The reaction rate of the process is also ten times faster than currently technologies, which reduces the initial expense of creating the fuel and enables the use of a fuel-source readily available near the processing plants.

Scaling up

The team has already secured “significant” funding for the next step of the project, which is to scale up production to a demonstration size.

Co-author Professor Percival Zhang told the Independent that in three to five years, the team should be able to build a bioreactor and fuel station that would be able re-fuel about 40 or 50 cars a day.

Creating pure hydrogen gas from crop waste and biomass is considered to a clean alternative to petrol, because when it’s burned in oxygen the only waste product it produces is steam.

Some experts have argued that hydrogen cars are a better long-term answer to low-emission transport because batteries are only as clean as the source of electricity they are charged with.

However, electric vehicles are currently dominating the low-emission vehicle market, with battery technology developing all the time.

In the UK, Transport Minister Baroness Kramer announced at the end of March, that 12 hydrogen refuelling stations will be established across the UK. And back in January Japanese carmaker Toyota announced it will freely share all of its hydrogen fuel cell technology in order to spur development of low-emission cars around the world.

Sustainable transport at Sustainability Live 2015

The evolution of transport technology will be discussed in detail at Sustainability Live 2015 in April, with a session at the Energy Efficiency theatre focusing on biofuels, hydrogen and electrification and how this roadmap can be used to time fleet upgrades and changes.

The seminar will also use a series of case studies to explore both technologies, employees engagement, alternative transport modes and fleet optimisation.

Register to attend Sustainability Live 2015 for FREE here. 

Brad Allen

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