UK researchers develop biomass-to-hydrogen systems

By Erin Voegele | May 30, 2012

Researchers at U.K.-based University of Birmingham are developing a method to use biofuel waste, specifically sugarcane bagasse, as a feedstock for biobased hydrogen production. According to information released by the university, the sustainability of long-term sugarcane ethanol production has been questioned. However, taking the agricultural waste products of the process and using them to convert biobased hydrogen for use in fuel cells could increase the sustainability of biofuel production.

“Fuel cells need clean energy to run them,” said Lynne Macaskie, a professor of applied microbiology at the University of Birmingham. “If you provide bacteria with a supply of sugary waste from, for example, chocolate production, the bacteria can produce hydrogen. At the moment manufacturers pay to dispose of waste but with our technique they could convert it to clean electricity instead.” According to Macaskie, the same process could take in sugarcane waste and product hydrogen, but she cautions more research work is needed as agricultural wastes, such as sugarcane bagasse, are more difficult for bacteria to digest.

Information posted to the university’s website shows that Macaskie has been working on this line of research since at least 2006. At that time, the University of Birmingham announced that a feasibility study had revealed a certain type of bacteria gives off hydrogen gas when fed high-sugar waste products. The hydrogen had then been used to generate electricity via a fuel cell.

A project located at the university, referred to as the Science City Hydrogen Energy project, is working to further the development of sustainable hydrogen production. The project has three main components: hydrogen generation, hydrogen storage and fuel cells. Regarding hydrogen generation, the university’s website noted that research is primarily focused on the sustainable generation of hydrogen from waste biomass, and that a number of different methods and production techniques are being investigated.

For example, one process involves the production of biobased hydrogen from organic waste that can be integrated with anaerobic digestion. A supercritical process that would allow the direct conversion of lignocellulose into hydrogen or simple sugars is also being developed. In addition, fluidized bed and circulating fluidized bed pyrolysis and gasification technologies are also under development.