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Human Achievement of the Day: Hydrogen Power from Plants

zhangEarly in the week I wrote about a major breakthrough toward the peaceful use of nuclear fusion. While that type of energy could drastically change human life on earth by providing bountiful clean and safe energy, it is, unfortunately, likely decades away from being commercially viable. Fear not because there are armies of researchers working around the world to find other affordable alternatives to fossil fuels that will help humanity cruise into the future. In this past year, one group of scientists have discovered a way to extract large amounts of hydrogen from plants—a process that would provide plentiful, cheap, and “green” energy, that could hit the market as a way to power vehicles in as little as three years.

For seven years a team of researchers at Virginia Tech have been searching for a non-traditional way to produce large amounts of hydrogen at low cost. They believe they have found that solution by using xylose, a simple sugar first discovered in wood, but found in most edible plants, including bamboo (a popular plastic alternative on the eco-friendly home goods market). The scientists created a custom “enzyme cocktail,” and by mixing it with the xylose and polyphosphate they can produce about three times as much hydrogen than other methods have been able to achieve. Y.H. Percival Zhang, one of the researchers on the project believes that hydrogen power can replace less sustainable modes of energy production and that his technology will have an impact on energy markets in the very near future.

“The potential for profit and environmental benefits are why so many automobile, oil, and energy companies are working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the transportation of the future,” Zhang said. “Many people believe we will enter the hydrogen economy soon, with a market capacity of at least $1 trillion in the United States alone.”

The real breakthrough in Zhang’s research is that he has found a way to create large quantities of hydrogen by using a renewable and abundant resource.

Zhang is using the second most prevalent sugar in plants to produce this hydrogen… This amounts to a significant additional benefit to hydrogen production and it reduces the overall cost of producing hydrogen from biomass.

Dr. Zhang is also the man behind a few other, related human achievements this past year including creating a sugar-powered battery that could power modern gadgets and a process that creates massive amounts of starch from wood, which could reduce food insecurity around the world, saving millions of lives. His work exemplifies one of the main messages of Human Achievement Hour: global challenges will not be solved through conservation or sitting in the dark, but rather through technology advancement, which the efforts of the environmentalist movement are slowing down.

About Human Achievement Hour (HAH): Human Achievement Hour is about paying tribute to the human innovations that allow people around the globe to live better, fuller lives, while also defending the basic human right to use energy to improve the quality of life of all people. Human Achievement Hour is the counter argument to Earth Hour, and promotes looking to technology and innovation to help solve environmental problems instead of reverting to the “dark ages,” by symbolically refusing to use electricity for an hour.