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A new method for making hydrogen directly from plants could be an inexpensive way to generate fuel for alternative vehicles, perhaps paving the way for hydrogen refueling stations that rely on agricultural waste.

For several years, Percival Zhang, a professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, has been developing an enzymatic method to break complex sugars—like those found in plant material—into their component parts. Zhang’s process is “cell-free,” meaning it does not require microörganisms like those used in fermentation. Now he’s shown that it can be used to efficiently turn corn stover, the most abundant agricultural waste product in the United States, into hydrogen fuel.

Zhang and his colleagues have demonstrated that the process produces three times more hydrogen per unit of sugar than conventional fermentation methods.

The technology is still at an early stage and has been proved only at a small scale, using a two-milliliter reactor. But Zhang says the method is nearly as fast and energy-efficient as existing processes that use microörganisms to produce fuel, including cellulosic ethanol, from organic material.

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