The car of the future may be — are you ready for this? — a sugar car. Don't laugh. Although Virginia Tech's Percival Zhang was tongue-in-cheekishly profiled in the December Esquire magazine for “crazy idea of the year,” he's quite serious about it as a path to the holy grail of automotive power: hydrogen.

Virginia Tech and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are impressed enough with the concept that they have filed for a joint patent on the idea.

Zhang, who is assistant professor of biological systems engineering at the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is, the Esquire article noted, “working on some rather unspectacular solvents and enzymes that could change the world.”

It goes on: “Zhang has formulated a chemical process that can turn a cheap agricultural waste into cheap cellulosic ethanol and possibly solve the ‘hydrogen puzzle.’”

The technology for making ethanol isn't the challenge, he says in a Virginia Tech News article; rather, “making ethanol production economical is the problem.”

Most ethanol today is made from corn kernels, but Zhang says “that is food” and “if we want to produce 30 billion to 60 billion gallons of ethanol to meet (President Bush's) goal (in his State of the Union address), we have to use the entire plant, or stover — leaves, stalks, and cobs.”

While corn stover is “the most abundant agricultural residue in the U.S.,” the article notes, converting the lignocellulose to sugars has been a costly, low-yield process.

Zhang has developed a more cost-effective process, using a solvent, to convert the lignocellulose into four co-products that “can generate more income,” making networks of small, local biorefineries more profitable and minimizing transportation costs.

But while Zhang's process could revolutionize ethanol production, he's looking beyond ethanol to the decades-old dream of hydrogen power.

Hydrogen, the Esquire piece notes, is high in energy and ridiculously clean — a hydrogen-powered fuel cell would be several times more efficient than a gasoline-fueled engine and would emit only water.

Drawbacks are many, chief among them that the energy needed to extract it by conventional methods can be less efficient and more polluting than petroleum.

Zhang's solution: make hydrogen from sugar. As the article explains, his ethanol pretreatment process would release sugars from corn stover, switchgrass, or other feedstock, and use the energy stored in those sugars to divide the molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.

Instead of huge reactors and storage tanks for gaseous hydrogen, Zhang says, small reactors could be “anywhere — laptops, cars, airplanes, and submarines.”

Rather than a massive infrastructure for storing and dispensing hydrogen, he says, “We can do it through solid sugars.”

He envisions a future, the Esquire article says, in which “sugar cars” would fill up at “sugar stations,” using much of the current petroleum fuels infrastructure — “drivers would pump solid sugar into the tank, a converter would extract hydrogen on demand, and a fuel cell would convert the hydrogen into electricity” to power the vehicle.

Crazy?

That's what they said about a guy who powered an engine with peanut oil — Rudolph Diesel.