Researchers at Virginia Tech have discovered a way to extract large quantities of hydrogen from any plant, a breakthrough that has the potential to be a low-cost, environmentally friendly fuel source.

Associate Proffessor Y.H. Percival Zhang and his team have succeeded in using xylose, the most abundant simple plant sugar, to produce a large quantity of hydrogen. The method can use any source of biomass. Unlike previous methods of producing hydrogen from biomass, which are expensive and release greenhouse gases, the new process releases almost no greenhouse gasses and does not require costly materials or heavy metals.

The hydrogen is produced at 50°C and normal atmospheric pressure using biocatalysts. These biocatalysts are a group of enzymes artificially isolated from different microorganisms that thrive at extreme temperatures. The enzymes, when combined with xylose and a polyphosphate, liberate about three times as much hydrogen as other hydrogen-producing microorganisms.

The researchers believe that the process could find its way to the marketplace as soon as three years