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Reviving the Fuel-Cell Car With Hydrogen

The push for creating an alternative to traditionally fueled vehicles is in full-swing, but not everyone is board just yet. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are in high demand in Europe and companies are funding a great deal of research into this technology to get it up to speed.

However, in the United States, funding and interest in hydrogen powered fuel-cells has been moved to the back burner by the current Obama administration.

Current Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, recently stated in an interview with MIT Technological Review that, “I always was somewhat skeptical of it because, right now, the way we get hydrogen primarily is from reforming gas. That’s not an ideal source of hydrogen. You’re giving away some of the energy content of natural gas, which is a very valuable fuel. The other problem is, if it’s for transportation, we don’t have a good storage mechanism yet. Compressed hydrogen is the best mechanism [but it requires] a large volume. We haven’t figured out how to store it with high density. What else? The fuel cells aren’t there yet, and the distribution infrastructure isn’t there yet. So you have four things that have to happen all at once. And so it always looked like it was going to be the distant future. In order to get significant deployment, you need four significant technological breakthroughs. That makes it unlikely.”

The good news is, researchers at Virginia Tech may be able to answer these problems and create a hydrogen fuel cell that is not only efficient but much easier to produce. A recent experiment conducted by researchers at the school focused on using plant sources to create hydrogen.

The team was able to produce large quantities of hydrogen through xlyose, a simple plant sugar. “We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy,” said Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at the school.

Hopefully, this new advancement will help the Obama administration change its mind on funding this type of research. Earlier this year, it was announced that funding would be slashed from $250 million to just $70 million.

Jonathan R. Mielenz, a group leader in the bioscience division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, stated, “The key to this exciting development is that 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.”

If new funding is approved, this will be great news for those in the engineering industry, particularly if the big three automakers begin to embrace this type of technology.

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