A US researcher has discovered a cocktail of enzymes that converts starchy syrups into carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and the latter can be fed into a fuel cell to run an electric car, or even used in an ordinary combustion engine.
The method hinges on a mixture of 13 enzymes, normally found separately in plants, rabbits, bacteria and yeast, but never together in nature.
According to Y-H Percival Zhang of Virginia Tech University, when the enzymes are added to starch and water, "they use the energy in the starch to break up water into CO2 and hydrogen".
The CO2 is separated from the hydrogen by a membrane and returned to the atmosphere. As the starch is from biomass - wood and plants - the same amount of CO2 is released by the conversion which is taken out of the atmosphere by plants to produce the starch in the first place. As such, the process is carbon neutral.
According to him, the technology is the solution to three major hurdles that is impeding the transition to a hydrogen economy: safe and cheap production, storage and transportation of hydrogen.
"Most car companies are putting some money into developing hydrogen cars. A straightforward, cheap strategy like this will be important in allowing hydrogen energy technologies to come into common use," said Kylie Vincent of Oxford University in the UK.
Zhang, who plans to make a prototype toy car within three years, has said his technique could produce hydrogen for as little as eight dollars for four kilograms of hydrogen.
This could also fuel a car for more than 300 miles, he said.
Although the enzymes used - sourced from a chemical supplier - are expensive, he believes he can produce cheaper ones that would also work at higher temperatures.
It is possible to produce enzymes that would convert starch to hydrogen equally well at temperatures up to 100 degrees Centigrade, which is important if the cocktail is to be used in working cars, he said.
"One day, you could buy starch in a supermarket; pour it into your engine, and go. We plan to use cellulose from plants, such as wood chip and agricultural waste. The enzymes would produce hydrogen in real-time, as your engine needs it," said Zhang.
"If the financial support is sufficient, within three to five years, this technology will be applied to high-end markets such as cellular phone and laptop batteries. After another three to five years it will be integrated with hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles. If everything goes well, we will see the first real-size sugar car on the way after eight to ten years," he said.
Vincent however, said though the technique might not be an ideal end-solution for the hydrogen economy, as like all biofuels, it relies on biomass, and therefore land, to produce the starch, it could, in the short term, "be a good stepping stone to introduce a hydrogen economy".
"One challenge for getting hydrogen into use is finding a way of storing it. This way of storing hydrogen is lightweight, safe and easily distributed. It is no more dangerous than the petrol we use at the moment, and it is totally safe in the form it is poured into the engine. Other storage materials that will take up hydrogen tend to be heavy metals. But this is a lighter way of carrying hydrogen around," added Vincent.
The findings appear in the journal Public Library of Science (PloS), reports New Scientist.