U researchers discover a cleaner fuel source

Reactor that turns ethanol into hydrogen took two years to create.

Britt Johnsen

University researchers have found a cleaner and more efficient option for the environment.

The researchers discovered how to turn ethanol into hydrogen. This new option, published today in Science Magazine, is more efficient and allows for greater technology in renewable energy.

“It was a breakthrough,” said Gregg Deluga, one of the researchers.

Chemical engineering professor Lanny Schmidt, graduate student James Salge and Deluga worked for two years on a reactor that converts ethanol into hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be used to power fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat.

Researchers said the reactor can be built small enough to be hand-held and can be used to run power plants, buildings, homes, cars and laptops.

“It’s a small, compact, robust, simple, cheap way to do this,” Schmidt said. “We were surprised we did this.”

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the University’s initiative for renewable energy.

Schmidt said he was excited about the renewable energy provided by the reactor, pointing to the cyclical process of the technology. Using ethanol found in corn, the reactor creates hydrogen and emits carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Carbon dioxide will feed corn crops, which can then be used for ethanol.

Hydrogen energy goes directly from burning chemically to electrically. It is more efficient because chemical burning involves going from chemical energy to heat energy, which then goes from mechanical energy to electrical energy.

Using hydrogen fuel cells can be three times more efficient that using ethanol, Deluga said. While ethanol usually burns at 20 percent, hydrogen in fuel cells burns at 60 percent.

Schmidt said Minnesota spends approximately $12 billion a year on exporting fuels, which is about $3,000 per person. Hydrogen fuel cells could lessen that amount, he said.

“This could have a big impact on Minnesota,” he said.

However, Schmidt said it would be at least five years before anything is implemented.

Schmidt said the technology is ready right now, but the question is whether people want to use it.

University graduate student Melissa Mracek said she would buy hydrogen energy.

“I think it would be really good,” she said.

Ed Legge, Xcel Energy spokesman, said while it’s too early to tell whether the hydrogen fuel cells are something the company could use, Xcel would be interested in looking into it.

“We’ve historically been a leader in looking at alternatives,” he said.

If the hydrogen fuel cells are successful, Schmidt said he hopes to pass them on to Third World countries that do not use fuel cells. For now, though, he said the priority is working on Minnesota.

“We want to make Minnesota No. 1,” Schmidt said.