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Gas Goes Green

Even though I live in the great green state of Colorado, I'm not much of an environmentalist. Sure, I love the outdoors. I recycle. But you're not likely to catch me in tie-dye and Birkenstocks chomping on a heaping helping of granola.

Yet I found myself wanting to go hug a tree and collect compost after hearing yesterday's news that fuel cells might be able to harvest the hydrogen created when bacteria consumes organic matter. reports that the process, discovered by researchers at Penn State University and Ion Power, is capable of producing as much as four times the hydrogen through ordinary fermentation.

If at this point you're recalling a vision of Christopher Lloyd's character Emmett "Doc" Brown placing stale beer and a banana peel into the DeLorean's "Mr. Fusion" fuel converter in Back to the Future, you may have a clinical addiction to '80s cult movies. But you'd also be pretty close to the mark.

By eliminating oxygen and combining biomass -- environmental code-speak for trash -- with a small electric shock, the new process can create hydrogen remarkably cleanly. That's important, because making hydrogen usable by fuel cells has required big, ugly heaps of fossil fuel in the past.

There's really no telling whether the technology will catch on for producing fuel cells more cleanly and efficiently. At least one of the researchers said in a statement that he doubted it would "sustain a global hydrogen economy." Still, it's an important step in the right direction. And, over time, it may help struggling fuel-cell firms such as Ballard Power (Nasdaq: BLDP  ) , FuelCell Energy (Nasdaq: FCEL  ) , and Plug Power (Nasdaq: PLUG  ) .

So it's probably worth it for investors to at least sit for this movie. Indeed, though the industry has played a lot like Crispin Glover's George McFly struggling through the halls of Hill Valley High with a "kick me" sign attached to his back, it's worth noting that McFly knocked out the bully and won the girl in the end. Maybe this bacterial breakthrough will provide the needed inspiration for the Rule Breakers among the fuel-cell makers to do the same.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers counts green as his favorite color, especially the kind that colors cash. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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10/27/2016 4:00 PM
BLDP $2.09 Down -0.12 -5.43%
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FCEL $3.65 Down -0.05 -1.35%
FuelCell Energy CAPS Rating: *
PLUG $1.56 Down -0.02 -1.27%
Plug Power CAPS Rating: *