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Genetic Engineering Increases Hydrogen Yield from Biomass, Virginia Tech

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Sorghum, a Leading Biomass Crop, Could Generate Carbon-Free Hydrogen in the Right Process
Sorghum, a Leading Biomass Crop, Could Generate Carbon-Free Hydrogen in the Right Process

Hydrogen itself is a clean fuel and can be used in fuel cells to generate electricity or even burned in traditional internal combustion engines with zero harmful emissions, but producing hydrogen isn’t so clean.

The goal of hydrogen power is to eliminate carbon dioxide from the equation, but this has proven difficult. The never ending circle starts with hydrogen, which can be generated from water by electrolysis. The electricity has to come from somewhere, often from an unclean source like oil.

Even if the source of electricity is clean, such as wind or solar, the production of wind and solar has its own carbon emissions. Eliminating carbon from the hydrogen process hasn’t been easy. Producing hydrogen from biomass is another method that is both inefficient and dirty.

A recent development by researchers at Virginia Tech could reduce costs and eliminate carbon from the hydrogen cycle. One sugar in biomass, xylose, is the second-most abundant, but also hard to extract. By genetically engineering high-temperature microbes to release their enzymes to digest xylose in the presence of a polyphosphate researchers can generate about three times more hydrogen from biomass than other microbial types.

The reaction also occurs at just 122°F and normal atmospheric pressure. Keeping temperatures and pressures down eliminates external power sources and allows the process to take place naturally and carbon-free.

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