Ethanol Gets Into the fuel cell race

As the leading domestic, renewable choice for hydrogen fuel cell power, ethanol is winning over the fuel cell R&D community. EPM goes inside the RFA Fuel Cell Task Force responsible for getting ethanol 'in the game' before it's too late.
By Tom Bryan | September 01, 2003
Could the ethanol industry be "left out of the picture" if hydrogen fuel cells gain widespread commercial popularity in the next 20 years?
It's a question not being left to time.

Thinking long-term, ethanol industry leaders have launched a grass-roots campaign to win support for ethanol-derived hydrogen fuel cells. They're drumming up enthusiasm for ethanol in fuel cell R&D circles which, until recently, were entangled with non-renewables – gasoline and natural gas – with vast storage and refueling infrastructures in place.
Ethanol, however, is gaining ground fast.

Arguably the most promising renewable source of hydrogen for fuel cell energy, ethanol storage and refueling infrastructure is growingly competitive, yet still not comparable, with gasoline and natural gas. A growing number of researchers are publicly saying ethanol is "attractive," clean and easy to reform.

Suddenly, what was once "a game the ethanol industry could not win" is looking more and more like the beginning of what may become the ethanol industry's next big market: supplying a renewable, domestically-produced fuel for use in clean, ultra-efficient power modules that might someday provide energy for millions of commercial buildings, homes, automobiles, farm machinery, cell phones and laptop computers.

Task Force Keeps Focus on Future
The Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry's legislative voice in Washington D.C., has created a Fuel Cell Task Force to promote the advantages of using ethanol in various fuel cell applications. Thanks to the vision and commitment of the task force's volunteer board members, ethanol is increasingly "in the picture."

The task force meets every two to three months, alternating between telephone conference calls and in-person meetings. The group has an important date with officials from the Department of Energy (DOE) this month and will gather at the RFA's National Ethanol Conference in Miami in mid-February.

The group formed two years ago but operated under relatively quiet terms until releasing a white paper on ethanol and fuel cells last September. The document, Ethanol & Fuel Cells: Converging Paths of Opportunity, prepared by fuel cell analyst Jeffrey Bentley and writer Robert Derby, is a 14-page synopsis of the converging paths, and potential synergies, between ethanol and hydrogen fuel cells. Commissioned by the RFA, the paper brought ethanol to the forefront of renewable fuel cell R&D discussions and publicly articulated the mission of the Fuel Cell Task Force.

The release of the document was welcomed by the ethanol industry and hailed by the RFA as an important new market investment.

"Fuel cells will clearly play an important role in providing electricity and powering vehicles in the near future," said RFA President Bob Dinneen last September when the paper was released. "In the search for hydrogen to power these new fuel cells, only ethanol combines the ability to utilize the existing fuel distribution infrastructure with the safety and environmentally-friendly attributes that consumers are increasingly demanding. Clearly, fuel cells represent an important new market for renewable ethanol."

According to the document, ethanol and fuel cells are both the focus of major investments in technology, production and market development. However, the white paper noted, little attention has been paid – until recently – to the combination of these two powerful developments.

"In fact, there are major benefits that can be achieved by relatively minor shifts in focus of existing development paths to recognize and capitalize on the broad synergies that come from using ethanol to power fuel cells," the paper's authors asserted.

Notably, the white paper also pointed out that ethanol is easily stored and dispensed in the current fueling system and generates fewer greenhouse gas-forming emissions than conventional fuels. It also stated that tests have demonstrated that ethanol is more efficient to reform into hydrogen than gasoline.

Why Fuel Cells Now?
With combustion engines expected to reign supreme for decades to come, and ethanol gaining widespread consumer acceptance as a clean-burning gasoline additive, why the interest in fuel cells now?

"At this point, it's an 'us too' thing," said Randy Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, a 30-mmgy ethanol plant in Claremont, Minn., and a member of the RFA Fuel Cell Task Force. "We're sort of trying to catch up [with gasoline, natural gas, and methanol] right now. We want to make sure ethanol is in the game. . . because it really should be."

Ethanol is hydrogen-rich and has a relatively simple molecular structure, making it better suited than most other fuels to be reformed into hydrogen. Hydrogen, or H2, does not exist in nature for very long and is usually found combined with other elements, such as water, hydrocarbons (methane, propane and gasoline) and alcohols (ethanol and methanol).

Tailing Methanol
Like ethanol, methanol also has a simple carbon structure and is easily converted into hydrogen but lacks the storage and refueling infrastructure that already exists for ethanol. And whereas ethanol is renewable, methanol is made from fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, and is extremely toxic.

Nevertheless, the methanol industry has been undeniably successful at attaching itself with fuel cells.

"The methanol suppliers, especially Canada-based Methanex, have been involved with fuel cell developments for years – even before MTBE fell out of favor. You take a look at Ballard (a leading fuel cell company) or the California Fuel Cell Partnership and you'll see that methanol is everywhere. That industry has injected a significant amount of cash into fuel cell research and development, and it's paid off for them," said RFA Fuel Cell Task Force member Jeff Roskam, of ICM Inc.

Doyal added, "I think [the methanol industry] saw the handwriting on the wall with MTBE on its way out."

Whether or not methanol producers have pursued fuel cells more aggressively since MTBE (the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether) was found to pollute groundwater and banned in several states, is unclear. But what is clear is that methanol is preferred by many fuel cell developers, because it has one less carbon molecule than ethanol and it is available worldwide.

"In terms of sustainability and being renewable, ethanol wins out, of course," Roskam said. "But methanol is available internationally, the infrastructure is good, and it's fairly cheap."

For automobile applications, most fuel cell demonstrations have been trying to use gasoline as the hydrogen source, Doyal explained. "But ethanol clearly works better than gas. It's renewable and much cleaner. Gas, however, has the infrastructure and that's what it's all about right now."

Hydrogen Initiatives Recognize Ethanol
The hydrogen fuel-source "race" alone, however, has not solely triggered the ethanol industry's sudden interest in fuel cells. Increased government funding for fuel cell R&D, coupled with vocal support from the Bush Administration, has amplified the call for ethanol-derived hydrogen fuel cell demonstrations.

President George W. Bush earned praise from Corn Belt politicians last spring when he recognized ethanol as a domestic source of hydrogen to power fuel cells. Early last year, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion "Hydrogen Fuel Initiative" that includes support for research and commercialization of fuel cells for automobiles and stationary power generation.

In a speech to fuel cell technology leaders, automobile industry executives and DOE personnel, the president outlined his vision for a hydrogen-powered future. He included ethanol.

"There's a lot of advantages that I want to explain to the American people about why this initiative makes sense," he said. "First, hydrogen can be produced from domestic sources – initially, natural gas; eventually, biomass, ethanol, clean coal, or nuclear energy."

Automobile Use and the 'Flexibility' Factor
According to the RFA's white paper, studies, such as one conducted by the California Fuel Cell Partnership have shown that a major advantage to using ethanol in automotive fuel cell applications is its compatibility with gasoline reformer technology and its flexibility to be used "neat" – as pure ethanol – or in various gasoline-ethanol blends ranging from E10 to E85.

Doyal reiterated those claims, telling EPM, "Maybe they will end up using a mixture of ethanol and gas. . . That's an option, too. There is certainly enough E85 refueling sites in Minnesota [and some other states] for something like this to happen [with E85 and fuel cells]."

Studies have also highlighted ethanol's compatibility with the gasoline infrastructure, which means that ethanol can be optimized regionally and according to ethanol economics and availability in relation to gasoline. In fact, the ethanol-gasoline blend option is the only fuel cell vehicle refueling strategy that does not require the commitment of major infrastructure investments to a single fuel.

This "flexibility factor," ethanol's ability to be reformed into hydrogen even when mixed with gasoline, is an attractive quality for fuel cell applications, according to fuel cell researchers who spoke with EPM this month.

According to another recently published study, the use of ethanol-powered fuel cells could have a profound impact on reducing U.S. consumption of gasoline. If only 10,000 vehicles were fueled by fuel cells using ethanol, oil consumption would be decreased by almost seven million gallons per year, the study found.

"I personally like the idea of using renewable fuels like ethanol," said Jim Johnson, a senior research engineer for Caterpillar, Inc., which is involved in an ethanol-powered fuel cell project in Pekin, Ill. "The idea of using renewable fuels to help reduce greenhouse gases, while also helping the economy, has obvious appeal."

The 'On-board, Off-board' Question
One of the unanswered questions facing the fledgling hydrogen fuel cell industry is whether automobiles would utilize onboard hydrogen reformers or off-board hydrogen reformers.

In both cases, a reformer is a device that converts fuels like ethanol and gasoline into hydrogen for fuel cell power. Fuel cell developers would like to see off-board reforming become a reality, but the public would probably be slow to accept the idea of driving around with a tank full of potentially explosive hydrogen.

"Onboard reforming is very expensive, but seems to be the most practical option right now," said one industry analyst. "Off-board reformers, where everybody just fills up with hydrogen, tends to sound a lot like we would have thousands of little Hindenbergs everywhere. So I think onboard hydrogen reformers might be the answer, and the stations would still [offer ethanol or ethanol-blended gas] much like they do now."

While most auto industry analysts believe widespread commercial sales of fuel cell vehicles is still years off, every major automaker has a fuel cell development program in place, many of them with massive budgets and hundreds of engineers. According to the RFA white paper, automakers are "hedging their investments" by developing onboard reformer systems capable of converting hydrocarbon and renewable fuels (gas and ethanol) into hydrogen to power fuel cells. General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen and others are developing reformers and GM has already demonstrated a truck powered by a fuel cell operating on gasoline.
Still, most indications lead one to believe automotive fuel cells will follow the successful commercialization of stationary fuel cells.

"Maybe in 15 or 20 years we'll see everyone with fuel cell cars but I think stationary fuel cells will come first," said Mary Giglio, RFA congressional and public affairs director, and point-person for the Fuel Cell Task Force.

Stationary, Auxiliary, Micro Fuel Cells
Used in niche areas, stationary hydrogen fuel cells running on ethanol make sense and have already been demonstrated in real commercial applications. Indeed, stationary ethanol-derived hydrogen fuel cells would be an ideal source of electricity for rural homes and farms, especially those near the Corn Belt.

"These cells could be used to provide electricity to a building," Doyal said. "In this [application], ethanol could be trucked farm to farm."

In fact, it's already happening with other fuels in the Untied States and many other parts of the world.

One leading fuel cell company has delivered hundreds of 200 kilowatt fuel cell systems throughout the United States and 14 countries, another has manufactured over 300 residential systems, and a third has installed a fuel cell that provides power to a building in Yellowstone National Park.

The successful demonstration of these stationary fuel cells for distributed power generation, coupled with increasing scrutiny of America's energy infrastructure – and rising questions about its vulnerability – have given stationary fuel cells a "domestic security" appeal.

Roskam believes farm machinery could be easily transitioned to ethanol-powered hydrogen fuel cells because the weight of the ethanol reformers (which are fairly heavy) would have a negligible effect on the performance of a large machine like a combine.

"I think it's a perfect match for the Corn Belt," he said. "True energy independence. You would have farmers harvesting corn for ethanol plants with combines running on hydrogen fuel cells that use ethanol. What could be better?"

There are equally big ideas for very small fuel cells.

There are companies developing "mini" and "micro" hydrogen fuel cells that can run on ethanol, even beverage alcohol. One such company has designed micro fuel cells for cell phones and other small electronic devices. The tiny power module includes a built-in reformer that turns ethanol into hydrogen. The ethanol additive is contained in a small cartridge that fits into the device.

There are also "auxiliary power" fuel cells that are powerful enough to run the electricity and engine heating needs of a diesel semi without using engine power.

"There are just so many interesting avenues of discussion right now," Giglio said.

Task Force Members to Attend Conference
In early November, Doyal and other task force members are planning to represent the ethanol industry in Miami, where over 3,000 people from 40 different countries will converge for the 2003 Fuel Cell Seminar, the largest fuel cell trade show in the world.

"We went last year and it was well worth our while," said Aventine Renewable Energy's Gary Welch, chair of the RFA Fuel Cell Task Force. "A bunch of us are looking forward to going back."

The RFA has a special booth for the show that highlights synergies between ethanol and fuel cells. Task force members attending the show will be prepared to "sell" inquiring researchers, engineers, automakers and investors on ethanol.

"It's a great opportunity for exposure," said Giglio. "In the least, it's an opportunity for members of the task force to meet with more fuel cell suppliers."

The task force members will also look for opportunities to speak with representatives of the auto industry.

"There is lot of money being spent in this area, but not necessarily [on ethanol]. . . The task force does not have the dollars to support our own research. We don't have that type of funding," Giglio told EPM.

Roskam said even though his company and others have contributed significant amounts of money to the task force, the industry as a whole – has fallen "woefully short" of making in-roads into the fuel cell industry.

For now, task force members will focus on new partnerships, new opportunities and new ways for the ethanol industry to get involved in fuel cell developments.

"The RFA task force is definitely on the right track.," Roskam said. "Just getting out in front of people and talking about ethanol is a big step in the right direction. We need to answer all the viability questions and get ethanol in the race." EP