Corn husks a promising source of renewable fuel

US scientists find a way to use discarded corn husks and stalks to make cheap hydrogen fuel that doesn't pollute the environment like fossil fuels (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski) (AFP/File)

Miami (AFP) - US scientists said Monday they have found a way to use discarded corn husks and stalks to make cheap hydrogen fuel that doesn't pollute the environment like fossil fuels.

The advances by a team at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University save time and money while producing a zero-emissions fuel that could speed up the movement toward hydrogen-powered vehicles, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.

"We have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy -- producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources," said study co-author Percival Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech.

The study was led by Joe Rollin, a former doctoral student of Zhang's at Virginia Tech. Together they co-founded a start-up company called Cell-free Bioinnovations.

The process builds on previous research using xylose, "the most abundant simple plant pentose sugar, to produce hydrogen yields that previously were attainable only in theory," said the PNAS report.

Other hydrogen fuel production methods rely on highly processed sugars, but the Virginia Tech team used corn husks and stalks, which are known as dirty biomass, to cut costs and make the fuel easier to produce locally.

Rollin found that process of breaking down corn husks and stalks into hydrogen and carbon dioxide can use both sugars glucose and xylose at the same time, not one after the other.

That discovery means it is possible to speed up the rate at which hydrogen is released, while decreasing the area of the facility needed to produce it to the size of a gas station.

"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.

Experts said it is hard to know how much the new approach might cost. Funding so far has been provided by the Shell GameChanger initiative and the National Science Foundation.

But Lonnie Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuels at the University of Florida, who was not involved with the study, said the work "represents a revolutionary approach that offers many new advantages.

"These researchers have certainly broadened the scope of our thinking about metabolism and how it plays into the future of alternative energy production," Ingram said.

Researchers say they have the necessary cash to scale up their findings to a demonstration-level, which is the next step of the project.