This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

February 18, 2004

Engineers Find Economical Way to Make Hydrogen from Ethanol

Researchers at the University of Minnesota claimed on February 12th to have discovered a method of producing hydrogen from ethanol that is efficient enough to potentially serve as an economical source of hydrogen. The engineers used an automotive fuel injector to vaporize a mixture of ethanol and water, and then used a catalyst to convert that vapor into a mixture of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and other byproducts. The researchers claim a unit small enough to fit in a person's hand would be able to generate enough hydrogen to fuel a one-kilowatt fuel cell, capable of powering an average home.

A major advantage of the University of Minnesota invention is its use of a mixture of ethanol and water, eliminating an energy-costly step needed to separate the two for use as a combustion fuel. The efficiency of the conversion process and the fuel cell add to that benefit. "We can potentially capture 50 percent of the energy stored in sugar (in corn), whereas converting the sugar to ethanol and burning the ethanol in a car would harvest only 20 percent of the energy in sugar," said researcher Lanny Schmidt.

The research was published in Friday's edition of the journal Science and was partially funded by DOE. See the University of Minnesota press release.

Meanwhile, DOE is funding research to produce ethanol from non-starchy biomass sources such as corn leaves, corn stalks, and other agricultural wastes. These "woody" biomass sources are high in lignin, a glue-like substance that makes fermentation difficult. On February 9th, Danish company Novozymes A/S announced that it had achieved a 12-fold reduction in the cost of the enzymes needed to convert woody biomass sources into ethanol. Novozymes, the world's largest manufacturer of enzymes, was able to cut the cost for enzymes by increasing the enzyme activity and fermentation yield. As a result, the company reduced the cost of the enzymes needed to produce one gallon of ethanol from woody biomass from $5 per gallon to less than 50 cents per gallon. The research is being performed under a three-year subcontract from DOE, in collaboration with DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. See the Novozymes press release.