By on April 14, 2015

Corn Harvesting

Just as corn kernels have found their way into gas tanks, corn stover could soon end up in fuel cells.

A team of Virginia Tech researchers used previous research by Professor Percival Zhang and his team into xylose to turn corn stover — husks, stalks and cobs — into hydrogen through a genetic algorithm model to increase both enzymatic generation and breakdown rates by a factor of 10 and three, respectively.

The result is a reduction in both time, capital costs and facility size as far as hydrogen production goes. Lead author Joe Rollin — a former student of Zhang’s, who is also a co-founder with Rollin on a biofuel startup — says the new process can be carried out in a facility the size of a standard gas station, lowering one of the hurdles for widespread hydrogen production and distribution:

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.

The project was partially funded by Shell’s GameChanger initiative, as well as the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer program, and was carried out by Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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13 Comments on “Virginia Tech Transforms Corn Stover Into Hydrogen...”

  • avatar

    Somebody run some numbers and get back to us…

    I envision the self-serve fueling station of the future: Hop out of the car, grab the pitchfork chained to the pillar, toss a few hundred pounds of shredded biomass into the pit, and connect the hydrogen hose to your fuel tank. (Then wait.) You can save two bucks per fillup if you scoop out the residue from the digester while waiting for your tank to fill!

  • avatar

    Great Picture, but not corn

  • avatar

    The combine has attachments designed to collect and shred corn stover from the back, then blow it into a second wagon behind the tractor.

    This picture (a bit small) shows what the attachment looks like from the back, though it’s not the same one.

  • avatar

    There already exists an ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, IA which uses corn straw as raw material. I believe it is owned by the Poet Biofuel organization.
    As for the fiction that ethanol raises food prices, just take a look at the price of corn today: Rock bottom….

    • 0 avatar

      Forbes 4/20/14 It’s Final Corn Ethanol is Of No Use:
      “In 2000, over 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock, many in undeveloped countries, with less than 5% used to produce ethanol. In 2013, however, 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage (AgMRC).”
      Corn futures July 2010 were about where they are now – $355. Mid 2012 $800. Major price swings are normal. Direct subsidies are gone and ethanol is in gasoline because the EPA requires 10 percent and wants 15 percent. Otherwise, ethanol in gasoline would be history. VOC rubbish.

  • avatar

    I would be interested to see comparisons of yield, cost, energy input, etc., of using this stover for ethanol, hydrogen, and simple biomass burning for electric generation. And for good measure, compare those results to what you’d get if you you used the land for an algae system.

  • avatar

    It’s nice to see my alma mater mentioned in a story that doesn’t contain the terms spree-killing, beheading, or dog-fighting.

    • 0 avatar

      Speaking of spree-killing, my mom was a temp at VT’s cafeteria when Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 and killed himself. She had no idea it happened until later, when she was allowed to turn her cell phone back on.

      These days, she works at a Sheetz in Christiansburg, and plans to visit me up here in Seattle by train next year; she hates flying, to say the least.

  • avatar

    Recall Changing World Technologies, Brian Appel, several years ago, conversion of turkey offal, feathers, guts, heads, legs, fat,to bio diesel in Carthage Mo. 500 bbl. per day the investment promotion. 300 as good as it got. Lawsuits over stink and expenses to mitigate and expenses to correct engineering problems. Bankruptcy 2009 followed by EPA grant followed by bankruptcy and purchase by a Canadian company 2013.
    Point is that technology to convert waste into fuel cannot survive today without direct government subsidies. Same problem EU.

  • avatar

    Can we stop doing corn sh!t please, America. It’s not efficient and not a great fuel. It’s food or alcohol or whatever. Not fuel. Enough with the subsidies.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, considering this is using waste products that aren’t hugely profitable or critical, I don’t see the harm (in this case, at least). If they can find a marketable use for what is essentially garbage then more power to them.

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