Can Hydrogen Now Be Created From Corn?

The photographer holds an ear of corn he found on the ground next to a corn field during harvest on September 13, 2012 near Teltow, Germany. The annual corn harvest is underway in the German state of Brandenburg, where corn is widely planted and used for animal feed as well as the produciton of biofuels. Analysts recently predicted that German corn farmers are likely to benefit from global warming, as higher temperatures will mean an earlier planting season. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Source: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Back in April, Virginia Tech researchers claimed that they discovered a way to create hydrogen fuel faster and cheaper than ever before. The report shows that researchers used corn stalks, cobs, and husks to create the clean energy, and that America needs to consider recycling these discarded products if it wants to save some serious cash.

This discovery could make the hydrogen far more affordable and available, and Toyota is surely keeping a close eye on these developments as it nears the launching of its Mirai hydrogen-powered car. Researchers are also telling us that their process has extremely low carbon emissions associated with it, and that it has the potential to eliminate many of the high costs associated with hydrogen refueling stations.

Percival Zhang, a professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, says that the most important step toward a financially feasible hydrogen-powered economy is “producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources.” Unlike typical hydrogen fuel production (which relies heavily upon processed sugars), a dirty biomass like spent corn is both cheaper to process and is more readily available in large quantities across most of America. Processing plants can be built anywhere corn is considered a “cash crop,” thus making the plant an even bigger money-maker for farmers who already receive government subsidies for growing it.

We already have an overabundance of corn growing in places like Nebraska, farmers have yet to find a use for all the inedible areas of the plant, and now we have a team of scientists saying that they want this unwanted part of the plant for powering our cars. This scientific breakthrough has the ability to eliminate the high-capital costs needed when producing hydrogen from natural gas, and it could alleviate distribution headaches as most fueling stations have the potential to be their own refineries.

Source: Virginia Tech News
Source: Virginia Tech News

Head researchers Joe Rollin and Percival Zhang started by using a genetic algorithm and a series of complex mathematical expressions to analyze the enzymatic process that breaks down corn waste into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. They then introduced glucose and xylose sugars at the same time to boost the rate at which the hydrogen is released, which increased reaction rates by threefold, and decreased the required processing facility size to “about the size of a gas station.”

As the enzymatic generation rates increased, the reaction rates became fast enough to be deemed ready for hydrogen-fueling stations. Rollin and Zhang also report that enzymatic reactions on this level typically generate very pure hydrogen, which is ideal for vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells. This is a novel idea in that spent corn could be deposited by the truckload at a local hydrogen-fueling station, where it could then be processed and pumped directly into the filling tanks that feed our cars.

Most hydrogen today is produced with natural gas, which is dangerous, expensive to distribute, and has been linked to a variety of negative environmental impacts. Corn does not need to be extracted from deep beneath the Earth’s surface and does not require expensive drilling equipment or specialized transit trucks. This “fuel” is being grown on a large scale in a multitude of states, and there already is an infrastructure in place that is filled with farmers with the machinery required.

“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. The low-capital requirements for building hydrogen generating/fueling stations sounds like a great opportunity, and with the appropriate funding it could be just as big of a deal as Audi making diesel out of water and CO2. Fortunately, the guys over at Virginia Tech have that part covered too, as the project has received funding from the Shell GameChanger initiative as well as the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer program. With capitol backing now in abundance, the team says that the next step is to get production on a demonstration size. Who knows, maybe one day we can further genetically modify our corn to have richer stalks and husks too?

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