Could a hydrogen breakthrough boost the rollout of green cars?

For some time, electric and hybrid vehicles have been touted as the successor to cars that run on fossil fuels. It has been something we've long supported on this blog, with the benefits to a fleet being particularly enticing.

It will be obvious to every fleet manager that fuel costs are a key concern in the industry, and can quickly accumulate to be one of their highest and most consistent expenses.

On top of this is the ethical concern: people simply do not want to be having such an impact on the environment.

What is hydrogen fuel?

The hydrogen propulsion engine has so far been the 'Higgs boson' of the automotive industry. The ability to turn one of the world's most common elements into a fuel source that emits only water is a thrilling concept - though has not really advanced more than that.

Many believe we won't see hydrogen become a popular fuel source until the monopoly on fossil fuels has run its course; but there is also proof in the fact that so far the element is difficult to produce in any meaningful quantity.

Creating hydrogen in the ultra-pure form necessary for car fuel cells to work is expensive, time consuming and polluting in its own right - not ideal for making greener fleet cars.

However, a recent scientific breakthrough by scientists at Virginia Tech University in the United States has opened the door to the possibility of making hydrogen a much more profitable - and cleaner - fuel solution.

What's more, it relies on mere corn stalks, cobs and husks.

"One of the most important biofuels of the future"

The discovery involves the separation of hydrogen molecules using the simplest sugar found on Earth - xylose - allowing for previously unheard-of amounts of hydrogen production.

This process involves very little greenhouse gas, though it is the speed of production that is perhaps most admirable.

Hydrogen has been held back by its commercial availability. It has previously been considered an inconceivable task to make enough of the element to run the nearly 18 million vehicles on Australia's roads - let alone the rest of the world.

However, the new discovery produces ultra-pure hydrogen three times quicker than before. It can also be produced locally in a facility as big as the average fuel station, the study shows.

Co-author of the research Percival Zhang called it "one of the most important biofuels of the future", and explained his reasoning in quotes published by Russia Today.

"We have demonstrated the most important step toward a hydrogen economy - producing distributed and affordable green hydrogen from local biomass resources," Mr Zhang said.

"We think this discovery is a game-changer in the world of alternative energy."

Do you think your future fleet could soon be powered by hydrogen? Let us know your thoughts.