Hydrogen breakthrough opens road for fuel cell vehicles

Virginia Tech professor Percival Zhang and recent doctoral graduate Joe Rollin. Image courtesy of Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech professor Percival Zhang and recent doctoral graduate Joe Rollin. Image courtesy of Virginia Tech,

Scientists at Virginia Tech in the US have developed a new breakthrough method of generating hydrogen.

Hydrogen gas, which is one of the proposed future fuels for automobiles, produces only water vapour as an exhaust emission through the use of fuel cells.

The newly developed hydrogen generation method could theoretically allow for a network of distributed hydrogen generators not much larger than a conventional petrol station.

Developed by Professor Percival Zhang and researcher Joe Rollin, the new process involves the use of enzymes to break down sugars in waste biomass. Unlike previous biological hydrogen extraction processes using raw sugar, the new method developed by Virginia Tech uses ‘corn stover’ – stalks, cobs, and husks – to produce the hydrogen.

“This means we have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy – producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources,” explained Professor Zhang

Currently, the majority of industrially produced hydrogen is created through a process known as ‘steam reforming’.

Steam reforming uses large amounts of energy to react methane gas with superheated steam to produce hydrogen. This requires large industrial plants, making distribution more difficult. And while the method does provide a reduction in greenhouse gasses, the reaction still produces carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

A series of smaller plants using the new biological production process could create a much more efficient hydrogen supply network for fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).

“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 Virginia Tech researchers now plan to scale up their technology to a demonstrator plant, in order to prove its commercial viability.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

This latest advance in hydrogen production comes at an important time for vehicles that use hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.

Late last year Toyota unveiled one of the world’s first commercially available fuel cell vehicle, the Toyota Mirai, which will begin US sales later this year.

The Mirai represents a possible future for zero-emissions hydrogen vehicles, which Toyota believes are more viable for long-haul trips, than battery-powered vehicles such as the Tesla Model S.

In order to allow such vehicles to succeed however, Toyota, as well as other manufacturers, will require an advanced hydrogen production and distribution system.

A spokesperson for Toyota said: “Toyota is confident that hydrogen will become an increasingly popular energy source for powering vehicles around the world. Globally we have already launched hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles and the Mirai is already proving very popular in Japan.

“It’s exciting new technology and it’s certainly something that we will explore further. Before it can be rolled out locally however, we first need to have the relevant infrastructure in place.”

Current fuel cell vehicles:

Limited commercial releases:
Demonstration or concept vehicles: