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Friday, February 13, 2004

Hydrogen reactor 

A while back, I linked to a Slashdot article about the Army investigating hydrogen fuel cells for use in vehicles such as tanks, and another Wired article about hydrogen fuel in general.

At the time, I wrote,

Among the roadblocks is figuring out a way to produce hydrogen that doesn't use hydrocarbons.
Or some other kind of power, such as nuclear. But what it boils down to is that some form of pollution will be produced in the making of the hydrogen. Whether it's air pollution, or nuclear waste (which is always a thorny issue), something we don't want will be a byproduct of hydrogen production.

Well, today CNN and others reported on the development of a reactor that uses ethanol to make hydrogen, at the University of Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota (AP) -- Researchers say they have produced hydrogen from ethanol in a prototype reactor small enough and efficient enough to heat small homes and power cars...

Current methods of producing hydrogen from ethanol require large refineries and copious amounts of fossil fuels, the University of Minnesota researchers said.

The reactor is a relatively tiny 2-foot-high apparatus of tubes and wires that creates hydrogen from corn-based ethanol. A fuel cell, which acts like a battery, then generates power.

"This points to a way to make renewable hydrogen that may be economical and available," said Lanny Schmidt, a chemical engineer who led the study. The work was outlined in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
This is certainly a step in the right direction. I'm convinced that hydrogen is coming, and whoever can get out in front (read: ADM) is going to make a killing as hydrogen rises and fossil fuels fall. The oil companies will be a natural fit into the hydrogen system as well, simply by virtue of already having the distribution infrastructure in place.

This ethanol-based reactor is not the final answer on clean power, of course. The ethanol comes from corn, and it takes a hell of a lot of diesel to power the tractors, harvesters, etc. needed to grow corn. So we're not there yet, but today's news is a positive step toward cleaner fuel, and hence, cleaner air. One day, perhaps, the machines needed to produce corn, and the equipment needed to turn it into ethanol and from there into hydrogen, not to mention the trucks and trains that transport all of those things, will themselves run on hydrogen power. I don't think it's much of a stretch to imagine such a system.

And as an added benefit, the development and widespread use of hydrogen fuel cells would reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. OPEC can't be very happy today...
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