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Hydrogen fuel breakthrough lets researchers extract gas from any plant

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Zhang Virginia Tech
Zhang Virginia Tech

Researchers at Virginia Tech have successfully extracted large amounts of hydrogen from plants, a promising discovery that could help bring hydrogen closer to the environmentally-friendly fuel source many are hoping it can be. Y.H. Percival Zhang and his team accomplished this through the use of xylose, the second most prevalent sugar in plants. "Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels," Zhang said of the finding. Hydrogen energy has the potential to become a booming industry, but as Forbes points out, logistical challenges have hindered its progression into a low-cost, widely available power source. By tapping into xylose — found in every plant — researchers have made it over one hurdle; they've found a remarkably efficient way of producing hydrogen gas. The conventional (and wasteful) method of doing so involves reforming natural gas, a process that sacrifices some of the energy stored in the valuable resource.

Zhang's research is still preliminary, however, and it will be at least three years before it's ready for primetime. Further, other challenges remain when it comes to establishing hydrogen fuel cells as a means of powering automobile. Owing to issues with storage and distribution, former Obama administration Energy Secretary Steven Chu deemed it "unlikely" that hydrogen energy would see wide adoption anytime soon. But Virginia Tech's process could help move things closer to the goal post.