Is Ethanol the Future for Hydrogen Fuel Cells?

Everyone has an answer to the challenges of implementing a hydrogen economy. This time it’s from Technical Insights, a business unit of Frost & Sullivan. They say hydrogen fuel cell technology’s potentially strong future as a fuel for automobiles and various other applications is likely to be weakened by issues regarding its availability and the expenses involved in storage.

Palo Alto, California – March 30, 2004 [] What’s their answer? Ethanol. Hydrogen fuel cells reduce pollution by emitting water vapor in place of carbon dioxide. However the prevalent method of producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons, though economical, creates pollutants at the manufacturing site. While most proponents and industry insiders will tell you hydrogen is safe if handled properly, Technical Insight’s analysis is less forgiving. “Biomass material-based fuel cells are a better solution than power fuel cells since hydrogen is expensive and dangerous to handle,” said Technical Insights Analyst Al Hester. “More research should be devoted to ethanol since it is environmentally friendly and based on renewable resources.” Conversion of biomass materials such as ethanol into hydrogen is a more cost-efficient method to power fuel cells, according to the group. He said researchers believe that inter-metallic compounds could be used beneficially in fuel cell electrodes to oxidize ethanol. These materials are not alloys but have ordered structures wherein atoms are very specifically arranged. Electrolysis of water using hydroelectric or nuclear, wind, or solar power also produces hydrogen. However, in the present economic condition, Technical Insights said these methods may not prove to be cost effective. There’s also the option of simply using renewables directly for grid-power so as not to squander their efficiency on energy transfers, but that’s a whole other issue not necessarily tackled in this groups analysis and research. The need for cheaper and more efficient means to power fuel cells has resulted in investment in extensive research. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), for instance, awarded Cornell University $2.25 million over three years, to devote research efforts to cells based on other fuels, including ethanol. Safety is a non-issue while considering ethanol in fuel cells, said Technical Insights, who added that the challenge will be to reduce the cost of producing ethanol from corn and increase tax advantages in order to enable it to compete with fossil fuels. Perhaps easier said than done since every renewable, and traditional energy industry wants tax cuts. Just who gets them and how much is always in contention. “Current production processes, such as partial combustion of natural gas or electrolysis of water require cheap fossil fuels or electrical power,” Hester said. “In such a scenario, light-induced biological hydrogen production is a potentially cost-effective system.” This process uses enzyme systems present in photosynthetic bacteria, cyanobacteria, and green algae such as Chlamydomonas reinhardt. However, there is a need to detect microorganisms that are immune to oxygen and that would prove to be good alternatives to produce hydrogen commercially. This process is far from commercial success but there is research going on that hopes to propel it to commercialization. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have developed a sensor that detects hydrogen-producing microorganisms through a screening process. The system uses a sensitive film that changes color at a point where the organism being tested indicates hydrogen presence. New analysis by Technical Insights, featured in the Industrial Bioprocessing Alert, provides a detailed assessment of recent developments and the use of bio-based products in the fuel cell technology. For more information on their perspective see the following link.
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