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A cartoon graphic showing a corncob coming out of a gas pump nozzel.

Eventually flexible-fuel hydrogen stations could stretch from Iowa to Manitoba. The stations would initially serve local fleet vehicles (buses, delivery vans, or motor pools), and the vehicles could be fuel cell vehicles, or conventional internal combustion engine or hybrid-electric vehicles converted to run on hydrogen.

Running on hydrogen: new reactor will help make Minnesota energy self-sufficient

new reactor will help make Minnesota energy self-sufficient

By Deane Morrison

The flurry of phone calls took Lanny Schmidt by surprise. All he did was invent a way to produce hydrogen cheaply from a renewable source--ethanol--but you'd think he was a rock star from the attention he got.

In February, Schmidt, scientist Gregg Deluga and graduate student James Salge unveiled a new reactor that strips hydrogen atoms from a mixture of ethanol and water, producing hydrogen gas and carbon dioxide. It extracts up to three times the energy bang for the ethanol buck as you'd get from burning the ethanol directly. Research by the Schmidt team-all from the U's Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science-fits in well with efforts by the University, the state, private companies, and organizations to propel Minnesota into a future fueled by renewable hydrogen.

The hydrogen made in Schmidt's reactor would be burned in a fuel cell. "Ethanol in car engines is burned with 20 percent efficiency, but if you used ethanol to make hydrogen for a fuel cell, you would get 60 percent efficiency," says Schmidt, whose project was funded in part by the University's Initiative on Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). Also, unlike the situation with burning fossil fuels, the carbon dioxide emitted from an ethanol-based reactor would not produce a net increase in the atmospheric level of the gas. That's because the ethanol is fermented from cornstarch, and the carbon dioxide emitted will be absorbed by next year's corn crop.

Even though cheap, renewable hydrogen-production technology is in its infancy, public-private groups like IREE, the Minnesota Renewable Hydrogen Initiative (MRHI) and the Upper Midwest Hydrogen Initiative (UMHI) are laying groundwork for the move to a hydrogen economy based on resources Minnesota and the Northern Plains have in abundance: biomass (corn, soy, etc.) and wind, which can generate electricity and use it to extract hydrogen straight from water.

MRHI has drawn up a "road map" to move Minnesota toward increasing reliance on hydrogen from renewable sources, and UMHI seeks funding to plan and eventually build flexible-fuel hydrogen stations in the Twin Cities and other urban centers in Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas and Manitoba. The stations would initially serve local fleet vehicles (buses, delivery vans, or motor pools), and the vehicles could be fuel cell vehicles, or conventional internal combustion engine or hybrid-electric vehicles converted to run on hydrogen. The projected cost for nine stations is $18 million over six years; potential funders include the Legislative Committee on Minnesota Resources, the federal Department of Energy and private sources.

"We have a goal of incorporating hydrogen more and more into our energy mix, but there currently is no [target] date or specific amount of hydrogen we're trying to incorporate," says Jeff Haase, an engineer at the state energy office, housed in the Commerce Department. And, although hydrogen may be generated from fossil fuels until renewable technologies come of age, only renewable hydrogen will allow us to maximize the economic benefits of the hydrogen initiatives.

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