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In the future, your car might run on sunflower oil, or at least on the hydrogen that can be derived from it thanks to research being conducted at the University of Leeds.

A research team led by Valerie Dupont, has found a way to extract hydrogen from the hydrocarbon chains in sunflower oil. The technique does result in some carbon dioxide being released, but the team points out that growing sunflowers would offset it.

Hydrogen is the ultimate environmentalist fuel: when it burns it produces water vapour and nothing else. The trick is to find a way of generating the hydrogen without burning more of the fossil fuels it is supposed to replace.

Dupont explains that the team uses two catalysts to extract the hydrogen in a process known as unmixed reforming. One catalyst is carbon based, and the other contains nickel. The reforming process means the team does not reply on fossil fuel at any stage in the process.

Earlier this month we reported that a UK company has developed a way to extract the hydrogen from water using nothing more offensive than sunlight. However, the sunflower oil may have an advantage over the solar technology for mobile applications, at least.

For one thing, being able to generate hydrogen in real time eliminates the rather tricky question of where to store the hydrogen - particularly in a car - because a hydrogen tank would need to be 3000 times the size of a conventional petrol tank to deliver the same amount of energy. Dupont's team think their sunflower oil converter could eventually made small enough to be built into the engine of a hydrogen powered car.

The main drawback of the technology is the cost. Dupont concedes that the compounds are expensive. Still, we'll probably only need a couple more years of instability in the Middle East before oil prices make it a viable proposition. ®

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