A new method of creating hydrogen fuel using corn waste has been unveiled by researchers at Virginia Tech, showing how the fuel could be produced from locally available plant biomass.

The study could help speed the widespread arrival of hydrogen-fueled vehicles in a way that is inexpensive and has very low carbon emissions, Virginia Tech said.

Using abundantly available corn stover — the stalks, cobs and husks of corn plants — cuts down the cost of production and enables processing plants to use a fuel source that is readily available nearby.

Lead author Joe Rollin analyzed each step of the enzymatic process that breaks down corn stover into hydrogen and carbon dioxide and found that both glucose and xylose could be used at the same time, increasing the rate at which the hydrogen is released. Typically in biological conversions, these two sugars can only be used sequentially, not simultaneously, adding time and money to the process.

Using Rollin's model, reaction rates are increased threefold. The team also increased enzymatic generation rates, with the achieved reaction rate at least 10 times that of the fastest photo-hydrogen production system.

The method requires a facility about the size of a gas station, which is much smaller than existing hydrogen fuel production facilities.

"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," Rollin said.

Next, the researchers will scale up production to demonstrate that the costs work out for mass production.

Their findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.