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U of M regent professor Lenny Schmidt.

Lanny Schmidt, University of Minnesota Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering, led the University's effort to create the first reactor capable of producing hydrogen from a renewable source.

Hydrogen from renewable sources within reach

by University of Minnesota News Service

From eNews, February 19, 2004

University of Minnesota engineers have invented the first reactor capable of producing hydrogen from a renewable fuel source--ethanol--efficiently enough to hold economic potential. The technology is poised to remove the major stumbling block to the hydrogen economy: no free hydrogen exists except that which is made at high cost from fossil fuels. When coupled with a hydrogen fuel cell, the new device--small enough to hold in your hand--could generate one kilowatt of power, almost enough to supply an average home, the researchers say. They see an early use for their invention in remote areas, where it is not feasible to install new power lines. People could buy ethanol and use it to power small hydrogen fuel cells in their basements. Hydrogen--an element present in water and organic matter such as plants, petroleum, and coal--is now produced exclusively by a process called steam reforming, which requires very high temperatures and large furnaces. It's unsuitable for any application except large-scale refineries, says chemical engineering professor Lanny Schmidt, who led the research effort. "The hydrogen economy means cars and electricity powered by hydrogen," explains Schmidt. "But hydrogen is hard to come by [and] you can't pipe it long distances. There are a few hydrogen-fueling stations, but they strip hydrogen from methane--natural gas. [This process is] expensive, and because it uses fossil fuels, it increases carbon dioxide emissions [and] is only a short-term solution until renewable hydrogen is available." Ethanol, on the other hand, is easy to transport and relatively nontoxic. It is already being produced from corn and used in car engines. But if it were used instead to produce hydrogen for a fuel cell, the process would be nearly three times as efficient. That is, a bushel of corn would yield three times as much power if its energy were channeled into hydrogen fuel cells rather than burned alongside gasoline. The work, which was featured in the February 13 issue of Science, was supported by the University of Minnesota's Initiative on Renewable Energy and the Environment, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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