Virginia Tech Transforms Corn Stover Into Hydrogen

Cameron Aubernon
by Cameron Aubernon
virginia tech transforms corn stover into hydrogen

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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  • Redav Redav on Apr 14, 2015

    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.

  • CJinSD CJinSD on Apr 14, 2015

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

    • Cameron Aubernon Cameron Aubernon on Apr 14, 2015

      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.

  • RogerB34 RogerB34 on Apr 14, 2015

    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.

  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Apr 14, 2015

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Apr 15, 2015

      @notapreppie Much of that waste was formerly deep-plowed under (sometimes with soil amendments added) to decompose and help the soil retain moisture.