Biomass holds clean energy promise

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Sugar cane could
become a major
source of hydrogen

Biomass could provide the basis for clean fuels in the future, according to research published in the week’s Nature.

Experiments conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, United States, show that naturally occurring molecules such as glucose and glycerol can be converted into hydrogen at relatively low temperatures and pressures. Crops such as sugar cane, which are rich in these molecules, could therefore become an important source of hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen has emerged as a possible clean fuel of the future, particularly given recent advances in fuel cell technology, which converts hydrogen into electricity with no polluting by-products. However, although hydrogen can in principle be derived from water, this has proved difficult, so it is currently produced using non-renewable natural gas and petrol.

With depleting fossil fuel reserves and concerns over carbon dioxide emissions, the search for clean renewable energy sources has never been more intense. Demonstration of an efficient and renewable way to produce hydrogen is therefore seen as an important step forward.

“Biofuels are becoming a viable component of tomorrow’s energy mix,” say Esteban Chornet and Stefan Czernik in a related article. “Biomass refineries seem uniquely suited to providing a variety of products — food, fibres and chemicals, as well as biofuels — to satisfy society’s needs in a sustainable manner.”

Link to Nature news and views article
Link to Nature research paper

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Photo credit: Janice M. Tolj