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Beyond Ethanol

Corn growers associations have pointed with excitement at the potential to use ethanol as the preferred hydrogen source in fuel cells. Now chemical engineers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison are developing a new process that produces hydrogen more directly from plants. The auto and electrical-generation industries are exploring fuel cells as a way to achieve potentially pollution-free power.

The research, published in the August 29 journal Nature, describes a process by which plant-based glucose is converted to hydrogen. Because the Wisconsin process occurs in a liquid phase at low reaction temperatures (227°C, 440°F), the hydrogen is made without the need to vaporize water. That represents a major energy savings compared with ethanol production or other conventional methods for producing hydrogen from fossil fuels based on vapor-phase, steam-reforming processes.

The scientists say carbon dioxide produced by their process will be used up by the plants grown as biomass. Potential glucose sources for hydrogen production could include corn syrup, cornstarch, sugar beets, paper mill sludge, cheese whey, corn stover and wood waste. The team says it needs to make more effective use of the expensive platinum-based catalyst that drives the reaction. The researchers are looking into new combinations of catalysts and reactor configurations that could obtain higher hydrogen yields from more concentrated solutions of sugars.

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