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Researchers Generate Hydrogen from Biomass With a 100% Net Gain of Energy

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 21 comments
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Researchers using the Virginia Tech method may make it possible to power our homes from our gardens within the next 3 years.

The concept of producing hydrogen from biomass is certainly not a new idea, but past efforts have been too expensive or produced too little hydrogen (or both) to be viable as a source of electricity. Now, a team of researchers using biomass have successfully generated hydrogen from xylose using the "Virginia Tech method" that results in a 100 percent net gain of energy, produces small quantities of greenhouse gas emissions and doesn't require the use of specialized and expensive metals.

According to researcher Y. H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological engineering (pictured on the right), this "technique could help end the human race’s dependence on fossil fuels" and has an estimated market arrival time of just three years.

Though details on the Virginia Tech method are still under wraps, it is known that the process involves pulling enzymes from micro-organisms and combining them with xylose and a polyphosphate. Once these components are combined, hydrogen can be extracted at relatively low temperatures.

When we consider the phenomenal efficiency of the process and that xylose is the second most abundant sugar found in plants, we may all have the ability to power our homes and gardens and launch the era of carbon-neutral gaming by the end of this decade.

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  • 28 Hide
    leakingpaint , April 14, 2013 12:11 PM
    How many articles do we see of revolutionary technologies that will be ready soon only to never see them in the mainstream. I really really really hope this works without the big companies screwing everything up because of their greed.
  • 27 Hide
    Soda-88 , April 14, 2013 12:09 PM
    Something tells me that oil/gas companies won't appreciate this.
  • 13 Hide
    clifdweller , April 14, 2013 1:31 PM
    santeana - of course the ca law wasn't passed. government can't tell a business to produce something ( except china maybe) that would be like telling walmart they have to sell rehydrated prunes in all their stores. As far as hydrogen cars go yes they are simple to build but the cost ofthe hydrogen itself is to high, which by the way is what the virginia tech method is addressing. There are 2 main ways to get hydrogen, one uses electricity through patinum wires which is 68 - 82% efficent. this means more energy(prduced from fossil fuels) is used producing the hydrogen than they get back. The other method involves catalysts whic pring it up to 92- ~ 103% return but the catalysts are some nasty stuff that make nuclear waste look harmless(as in a gallon would pollute all of los angeles' drinking water supply). this new method would be revolutionary with 100% gain and using enzymes which means they should be safe and biodegradable. I hope it pans out
Other Comments
  • 27 Hide
    Soda-88 , April 14, 2013 12:09 PM
    Something tells me that oil/gas companies won't appreciate this.
  • 28 Hide
    leakingpaint , April 14, 2013 12:11 PM
    How many articles do we see of revolutionary technologies that will be ready soon only to never see them in the mainstream. I really really really hope this works without the big companies screwing everything up because of their greed.
  • 13 Hide
    clifdweller , April 14, 2013 1:31 PM
    santeana - of course the ca law wasn't passed. government can't tell a business to produce something ( except china maybe) that would be like telling walmart they have to sell rehydrated prunes in all their stores. As far as hydrogen cars go yes they are simple to build but the cost ofthe hydrogen itself is to high, which by the way is what the virginia tech method is addressing. There are 2 main ways to get hydrogen, one uses electricity through patinum wires which is 68 - 82% efficent. this means more energy(prduced from fossil fuels) is used producing the hydrogen than they get back. The other method involves catalysts whic pring it up to 92- ~ 103% return but the catalysts are some nasty stuff that make nuclear waste look harmless(as in a gallon would pollute all of los angeles' drinking water supply). this new method would be revolutionary with 100% gain and using enzymes which means they should be safe and biodegradable. I hope it pans out
  • 7 Hide
    flamethrower205 , April 14, 2013 2:06 PM
    Excellent work - if these results are in fact truthful then this will surely lead to a shift we've sorely needed in energy dependence. +1 planet earth :) 
  • 0 Hide
    hetneo , April 14, 2013 2:10 PM
    Now let's find the way to produce hydrogen from those 70%-91% percent of biomass which is not xylose.
  • 0 Hide
    technoholic , April 14, 2013 4:05 PM
    None of these "clean" or "costless" energies will be available soon. In fact it is not likely that we will ever use this type of energy ever. Because governments need us to pay taxes and electricity bills and fuel companies will always need MORE money. Infact governments are owned by those companies as well oO
  • -1 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , April 14, 2013 5:08 PM
    The problem with hydrogen cars isn't just the fuel - the actual fuel cells that convert 2H2 + O2 > 2H20 (looks better with the right subscripts) to release energy are ridiculously expensive and inefficient. Sure, you might be able to make the hydrogen, but using it for anything but heating is pretty expensive and difficult.
  • 1 Hide
    Truckinupga , April 14, 2013 8:05 PM
    Sounds like the answer we have been looking for, But don't get your hopes up. The EPA will find a way to stop it because they don't want anyone using anything but mass transit to get around, Or maybe a bicycle.
  • 0 Hide
    Truckinupga , April 14, 2013 8:06 PM
    Sounds like the answer we have been looking for, But don't get your hopes up. The EPA will find a way to stop it because they don't want anyone using anything but mass transit to get around, Or maybe a bicycle.
  • 1 Hide
    unksol , April 14, 2013 9:33 PM
    Quote:
    The problem with hydrogen cars isn't just the fuel - the actual fuel cells that convert 2H2 + O2 > 2H20 (looks better with the right subscripts) to release energy are ridiculously expensive and inefficient. Sure, you might be able to make the hydrogen, but using it for anything but heating is pretty expensive and difficult.


    Fuel cells are not that expensive and costs will drop. Storing and transporting hydrogen in a car is though. And fuel cells are much more efficient than an ICE. 50% at least. As long as you are getting the hydrogen for cheap/free it's a fine idea, just not in cars. Probably never in homes directly either, not enough biomass. But "central" ones running of leaf pickup and organic garbage and crop waste? Sure. anything is better than ethanol

    Labs at one of the tech universities in Germany have been using fuel cells to run a few buildings for years. Why? Well. Cause tech university lol. but guess what the efficiency goes to when ALL that "waste" heat is dumped into your radiant heating system snd hot water and you dont need electric or gas boilers anymore?
  • 0 Hide
    utroz , April 15, 2013 12:17 AM
    This is sweet till some oil company buys the patent and locks it away in a vault for the next 75-100 years... Oil companys do this type of stuff all the time so that we are dependent on their products.
  • 0 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , April 15, 2013 12:55 AM
    Quote:
    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job Ive had. Last Monday I got a new Alfa Romeo from bringing in $7778. I started this 9 months ago and practically straight away started making more than $83 per hour. I work through this link,>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> www.Wow72.com


    SPAM
  • 0 Hide
    geost91gr , April 15, 2013 6:00 AM
    Too bad oil companies will do anything to prevent it from actually being employed.
  • 0 Hide
    CaedenV , April 15, 2013 7:07 AM
    So... if this tech takes off (which it sadly probably won't), I wonder how this would be used for cars. Would this be used (no doubt in conjunction with solar) to store enough power during the day to charge an EV at night, or if this would open the door for for hydrogen cars to get somewhere.
  • 0 Hide
    CaedenV , April 15, 2013 8:54 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    The problem with hydrogen cars isn't just the fuel - the actual fuel cells that convert 2H2 + O2 > 2H20 (looks better with the right subscripts) to release energy are ridiculously expensive and inefficient. Sure, you might be able to make the hydrogen, but using it for anything but heating is pretty expensive and difficult.


    Fuel cells are not that expensive and costs will drop. Storing and transporting hydrogen in a car is though. And fuel cells are much more efficient than an ICE. 50% at least. As long as you are getting the hydrogen for cheap/free it's a fine idea, just not in cars. Probably never in homes directly either, not enough biomass. But "central" ones running of leaf pickup and organic garbage and crop waste? Sure. anything is better than ethanol

    Labs at one of the tech universities in Germany have been using fuel cells to run a few buildings for years. Why? Well. Cause tech university lol. but guess what the efficiency goes to when ALL that "waste" heat is dumped into your radiant heating system snd hot water and you dont need electric or gas boilers anymore?

    Exactly right! Even if this tech went only to power heat (and AC/refrigeration) sources it would take a huge load off of the overall power grid. We could go with solar to power things like home electronics, and then move to a cheap technology like this to cover things like heating and cooling. Heating and cooling is some 40+% of most people's power needs (heater, AC, water heater, oven, stove, clothes dryer, fridge) and all of it can be run efficiently on flammable gasses directly, it does not need to be converted to electricity to be a huge help to the power grid.

    On top of that you are right on about the efficiency of vehicles. We are currently at ~50% efficient with the burning of gasoline for propulsion... we could go much higher than that, but the problem is that to get gasoline to burn more efficiently requires the operating temperature to raise significantly, which then becomes a bit of a dubious physics problem for something as small as a car (like the whole car would melt and burn). No matter how you slice it, once you have energy out of an ICE you have already lost 50% of the possible power from the system. The gains we are seeing in fuel efficiency are due to better drive trains, lighter weight materials, better gasoline, less wind resistance, etc, but nothing recoups that energy lost at the start of the process.
    The nice thing about moving to electric power for vehicles is that the 50% limitation does not apply in the same way. My understanding (and I could well be wrong on this) is that we are still loosing some 50% of the potential power in an electric system, but most of this is an energy transfer and storage issue. Once you have the electricity inside the vehicle you have very little loss going from the battery to the motors, heater, AC and stereo (though more modern/efficient/powerful onboard computer solutions would be a plus!). Plus you get to recapture energy that would have been lost in things like braking, and you are not chained to a singular power source (anything that can be converted to electricity becomes a potential fuel). The trick is finding better ways to convert heat/light/material into electricity, and then more efficient ways to converting that electricity into a stored state for use in a battery, and there is progress being made on those fronts already. The other issue is getting material costs down and drive range up so that people can afford and use said electric/hydrogen vehicles, but that is again mostly an energy storage issue as the battery is the expense that dictates the car's higher price point.

    Also, efficiency is not always required for all systems (*shock!*). If this new way of producing hydrogen is sufficiently plentiful and cheap then it does not need to be particularly efficient in order to be useful. All that it needs to do is be clean (lack harmful byproducts), cheap, and have a similar usable energy density to other energy storage solutions (such as Gasoline or lithium-ion batteries). So long as it meets those requirements then it can be 20% efficient and still be a better solution than traditional technologies, and it will get better as the technology matures. From what I understand about fuel cells (which is admittedly surface level) the hard part has always been hydrogen production, and that once you had that then you would have an energy storage system that puts things like batteries and gasoline to shame. Either way you are not dealing with the byproducts and politics (middle east) of gasoline, or the EV range and politics (china) involved with battery production. Not saying that those are the only things to consider when choosing a new energy technology, but they do go a long way at making fuel cell tech look pretty good.
  • -1 Hide
    spartanmk2 , April 15, 2013 10:06 AM
    Energy companies will buy the patents and lock it away, or coerce the government to capitalize on it in some form
  • 0 Hide
    dalethepcman , April 15, 2013 12:11 PM
    @spartanmk2 - Sad but true :( 

    @ santeana - Generating hydrogen by adding electrical current to water is a 100% viable source of energy, and is most commonly found in solar to hydrogen conversion. Your assumption that the electricity would be generated using fossil fuels is out of touch.

    @someone somewhere - Generating hydrogen using that method while inefficient, can be 100% automated and based on renewable energy, so the loss from conversion is insignificant compared to the stable and lossless output of hydrogen.
  • 0 Hide
    InvalidError , April 15, 2013 12:36 PM
    Quote:
    How many articles do we see of revolutionary technologies that will be ready soon only to never see them in the mainstream.

    The problem with many of those "vaporware technologies" is that although the inventions themselves may be great technical breakthroughs, they are often not commercially viable using the techniques and technologies that enabled the discovery and may require years or even decades of further research for cheaper and/or faster means to achieve the same results to become available.

    Diamond might be the ultimate substrate for semiconductors but electronic-grade diamonds are extremely rare in nature (most of those end up in jewelry), tiny compared to silicon or gallium wafers and there is no known cost-effective and timely method of manufacturing wafer-sized diamonds. Until someone finds a cost-effective method of mass-producing 4" or larger diamond wafers, diamond chips will remain in the domain of high-premium applications that absolutely require it and can afford making chips one by one.

    Same for carbon nanotubes on silicon: they proved it can be done, they proved the potential benefits but we still need the self-assembly breakthroughs to make it cost-effective for mass-manufacturing.

    Much of the time, discovery is only half the battle. The other half is often finding ways to make application of that discovery cost-effective.
  • 0 Hide
    Someone Somewhere , April 15, 2013 6:47 PM
    Quote:
    @spartanmk2 - Sad but true :( 

    @ santeana - Generating hydrogen by adding electrical current to water is a 100% viable source of energy, and is most commonly found in solar to hydrogen conversion. Your assumption that the electricity would be generated using fossil fuels is out of touch.

    @someone somewhere - Generating hydrogen using that method while inefficient, can be 100% automated and based on renewable energy, so the loss from conversion is insignificant compared to the stable and lossless output of hydrogen.


    While generating hydrogen from water with electricity works, it is not a "source", as the electricity has to come from somewhere, and the amount of electricity will be larger than the energy in the hydrogen produced (it is not entirely efficient, plus the 1st law of thermodynamics gets in the way).

    You still need to make the source of renewable electricity in the first place, otherwise you are just replacing oil with coal.

    Plus storing the electricity in batteries (i.e. battery-electric vehicle) is still more efficient than electricity>hydrogen>electricity, plus the transport logistics are easier (we already have powerlines. Moving H2 is a lot more difficult and dangerous).
  • 0 Hide
    InvalidError , April 16, 2013 2:43 AM
    Quote:
    Plus storing the electricity in batteries (i.e. battery-electric vehicle) is still more efficient than electricity>hydrogen>electricity, plus the transport logistics are easier (we already have powerlines. Moving H2 is a lot more difficult and dangerous).

    Moving to H2 is more about energy density than efficiency: H2 has much higher power density per kg than any battery or other chemical energy source and refilling a H2 tank takes only a minute or two. A long-range rechargeable battery would be very heavy and recharging it in a reasonable amount of time requires beefy power delivery infrastructure.

    A quick comparison...
    - Gas: A 40L gas tank contains ~1400MJ weighing ~35kg.
    - Hydrogen: equivalent energy weighs ~12kg but needs over 120L of storage at 70MPa (LH2) which requires a heavy steel tank
    - Lithium: ~700kg battery that uses around 800L of space (bigger and heavier than H2's steel tank)

    Recharging a 1400MJ battery from 50% to full in 30 minutes would require infrastructure capable of delivering over 300kW or 1250A@240V... that's more power than entire neighborhoods usually use and would require some seriously stiff and heavy cables. The power grid may "already be there" but coping with so many new large momentary loads if everyone adopted such cars would likely require network-wide adjustments and upgrades.

    Battery-based cars are fine for city commute where you may be able to plug in while at the office, shopping mall, restaurant, overnight at home, etc. to avoid needing to find charging stations but for longer trips, hydrogen or some form of hybrid becomes much more attractive... steel for H2 tanks is much cheaper than lithium.
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