Sugar: too cool for fuel

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22nd Jul 2013
Written by: Will Jones

Sugar: too cool for fuel

From fuelling parties to fuelling planes

As many a gapper will attest, alcohol intake is prone to increase somewhat when travelling. While it should never be relied upon to have a good time, some of the most memorable – or, as the case may be, unmemorable – nights will be spent under the influence.

And what do we have to thank for this lovely little concoction that provides such uncontrollable joy to backpackers? Well, timing for a start. Alcohol was invented long before health and safety officials, and is now so firmly embraced by most of the planet there is little chance of prising it from the people’s trembling hands.


But in a scientific sense we have sugar to thank, because this is essentially what alcohol is, albeit in an altered form. When fermented by yeast, sugar releases energy, carbon dioxide and, most importantly, ethanol – aka the ‘good stuff’.

Sugar has been the fuel behind some truly awesome backpacker nights, be it the notorious buckets of Thailand’s Full Moon Parties, the noxious boxed wine of Australia’s beach parties, or the nectarous booze of Brazil’s New Year’s Eve parties.

Full Moon Party, Thailand

And now the charismatic compound is crusading towards new levels of esteem, having become one of the latest answers to global warming. Before long, sugar could be propelling us not just to absurd levels of happiness on some beach in some country, but to the country itself in the first place. Perhaps on a spaceship. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A report in the Guardian recently told how Percival Zhang, a professor of bioengineering at Virginia Tech Institute, has had the potentially revolutionary idea of turning sugar into hydrogen, which makes for a remarkably clean fuel.

It’s really (*clears throat and looks lost*) quite simple when you think about it. Zhang and his team have been busy in the lab successfully developing a cocktail of enzymes, which when combined with xylose – a simple sugar found in all the world’s edible plants – releases high quantities of high quality hydrogen.

Still with us? Good. Essentially what this means is that the xylose abundant in the world’s agricultural waste, which at the moment is just left to quietly rot, could be used for hydrogen, which in turn could be used to fuel travel of the future (and everything else), and end global warming. As we said, simple.

If you’d like a decidedly more scholarly version of the story you can read the report here, but until then, we’d like you to caster-side all doubt and offer us your best sugar puns in the comments below, because that would just be the icing (sugar) on the cake… And a really sweet thing to do.


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