U team searches for more renewable-fuel advances

The researchers are looking for more applications for their reactor, which uses ethanol to make hydrogen for power.

Angela Gray

Prototypes blowing up inside hoods, experimenting with flammable substances and trying to turn Crisco into fuel – all in a day’s work for some University researchers.

Lanny Schmidt, regents’ professor of chemical engineering and material science, along with a team of researchers, invented a reactor that extracts hydrogen from ethanol. The team is looking at other renewable sources to use hydrogen for fuel.

The reactor does not burn ethanol like ordinary combustion, which produces water and carbon dioxide. Instead of water, it makes hydrogen gas. Scientific American magazine named the reactor one of the top technological breakthroughs of 2004.

Having the ability to create hydrogen gas from renewable sources limits pollutants created in the process and has the potential to decrease dependency on fossil fuels and achieve a hydrogen economy.

Graduate student and research assistant James Salge said Schmidt has worked on making hydrogen from methane since the 1990s.

“Our group (of 10 researchers) took on the knowledge and broadened it to ethanol,” Salge said.

Salge said the small reactor needs a small amount of heat to get going, and once it does it sustains the reaction at 700 degrees Celsius, or about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

The reaction takes 10 milliseconds, whereas most conventional processes happen in seconds, he said.

“When reactions happen in milliseconds you can use much smaller equipment and have applications with portable devices and smaller stand-alone applications,” Salge said.

The process has practical applications nationwide. Salge said California is putting in a hydrogen highway offering access to hydrogen fuels – a Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger initiative to bring access to hydrogen fuel to the state’s highways by 2010 – but by obtaining the hydrogen from methane.

“The problem with California and other technologies is that hydrogen is taken from fossil fuels (versus renewable resources) which produce (carbon dioxide), which is linked to global warming,” he said.

With ethanol, the carbon dioxide generated by the reaction does not cause a net increase in the atmospheric level of the gas because the next year’s crop, corn, would reabsorb the gas to make sugar and starch.

Salge said people are interested in ethanol because they want it as a locally produced fuel in Minnesota.

With all of the research under way focusing on renewable energy, Schmidt said Minnesota could convert someday to an all-ethanol state.

“Minnesota is a good spot for a hydrogen economy,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got the technology and the interest.

“We blend 10 percent of our gasoline with ethanol and we’re trying to get other states involved, too,” he said.

During research, challenges such as working with a very flammable substance – ethanol – and finding a stable catalyst have presented themselves.

“We’ve been able to solve a lot of these problems by going back to the literature,” Salge said.

Despite these challenges, Salge said, his research has been very rewarding.

“As a graduate student trying to get publications, we have been in a few nice papers and had a lot of recognition,” he said.

Salge has traveled the nation to speak with farmers and in March, Schmidt traveled to Sweden to discuss the reactor.

In Minnesota, the researchers have been working on finding other sources to create hydrogen.

“We’re looking at vegetable oil, and we’re trying to turn it into hydrogen,” Salge said.

The researchers, Salge said, are using the same reactor system as with the ethanol.

Sarah Tupy, a chemical engineering sophomore, is working with the Schmidt group.

“It is a great opportunity to do interesting and innovative research,” she said.

She said that last summer she worked with Salge on a heat-integrated reactor.

“We built a compact reactor the size of an ear of corn that reforms liquid ethanol to gaseous hydrogen without added heat,” she said.

This summer, Tupy said, she will work on several ethanol and vegetable oil experiments.

Schmidt said he has worked with 70 doctoral students who now are working for oil companies.

Story continues below

“I’m not here to make money,” he said. “We are here for research.”

He said there is potential for others to make money and the success of a hydrogen economy depends on the price of oil and gas.

“No one knows for sure, but it’s all about economics,” he said. “If oil and gas prices increase, then we have to find a way to alter our ways or we’ll strangle our economy.”

Despite some concerns about spoiling the agriculture, Schmidt said that if Minnesota farmers were to turn all their corn and crops into ethanol they still would have some left over.

He said Minnesota farmers are very efficient.

“Hydrogen is efficient, simple and cheap and nontoxic,” Schmidt said. “It’s my dream that one day average homes will have hydrogen fuel cells.”