Plant-based fuel could be coming to a gas station near you. According to a report published today in the journal Nature, scientists have succeeded in manufacturing hydrogen from a glucose solution derived from biomass. If sufficient fuel were readily available, hydrogen-powered electric vehicles (which don't produce greenhouse gases in their exhaust) could help curb our reliance on fossil fuel-guzzling cars.

James A. Dumesic and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison developed a platinum-based catalyst that breaks down glucose extracted from plant and animal matter into hydrogen gas, carbon dioxide and methane. "The process should be greenhouse-gas neutral," study co-author Randy Cortright says. "Carbon dioxide is produced as a byproduct, but the plant biomass grown for hydrogen production will fix and store the carbon dioxide produced the previous year." The reaction occurs in a liquid phase and proceeds at relatively low temperatures (about 200 degrees Celsius), unlike the costly current methods of extracting hydrogen from glucose that use pressurized steam. The researchers report that hydrogen comprised 50 percent of the products in their tests.

Although the findings hold promise for industrial applications, the process is not yet commercially viable. The team achieved better hydrogen yields using methanol and ethanol as starting materials but because glucose can be derived from plant waste such as wood pulp, straw and leftovers from corn production, the scientists will continue to work on their approach. "We believe we can make improvements to the catalyst and reactor design that will increase the amount of hydrogen we get from glucose," Dumesic says. Potential improvements include finding an alternative to the expensive platinum-based catalyst and refining the process so that a wider-range of starting materials can be used.