Chemists led by a Virginia Tech researcher have reported development of a ‘revolutionary’ process for converting plant sugars into hydrogen, which could be used to cheaply and efficiently power vehicles equipped with hydrogen fuel cells without producing any pollutants – according to the American Chemical Society.

The process involves the combination of plant sugars, water, and a cocktail of powerful enzymes to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide under mild reaction conditions and the new system is the world’s most efficient method for producing hydrogen, says lead researcher Y.-H. Percival Zhang, a biochemical engineer at Virginia Tech.

The new system helps solve the three major technical barriers to the so-called hydrogen economy, notably how to produce low-cost sustainable hydrogen, how to store hydrogen, and how to distribute it efficiently.

“This is revolutionary work,” Zhang said. “This has opened up a whole new direction in hydrogen research. With technology improvement, sugar-powered vehicles could come true eventually.”

While recognized as a clean, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen production is expensive and inefficient with most traditional commercial production methods relying on fossil fuels, such as natural gas, but this latest development could be seen as a sweet success.

Zhang and colleagues believe they have found the most promising hydrogen-producing system to date from plant biomass. The researchers also believe they can produce hydrogen from cellulose, which has a chemical formula similar to starch but is far more difficult to break down.