Workers are clearing Iowa fields, hoping that if they build it, cars will come. The “it” is a processing plant that turns corn into ethanol, a fuel that is increasingly replacing gasoline today and may help to power the fuel-cell vehicles of tomorrow.

Iowa is home to 16 of the nation’s 87 ethanol processing plants, and another seven are under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Ethanol production increased 21 percent in 2003, to 3.4 billion gallons, the association said.

Demand could skyrocket if the technology for converting ethanol into hydrogen is commercialized and the federal government mandates increased use of the fuel in automobiles.

Researchers at Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota and the Gas Technology Institute are developing systems for reforming ethanol into hydrogen, which automakers including General Motors and Honda see as the fuel of the future.

The Gas Technology Institute is testing an ethanol reformer that produces 110 pounds of hydrogen per day, according to William Liss, the executive director of hydrogen energy systems at the institute, which serves as the natural gas industry’s research organization. Liss said the reformer is a slightly modified version of equipment used to convert natural gas to hydrogen.

“With our unique method of mixing water and ethanol, we had to make very (few) changes,” Liss said. He said converting ethanol to hydrogen could be completed with 70 percent to 80 percent energy efficiency, which is similar to the yield from natural gas.

For every 4 ounces of hydrogen, the reforming process creates about 1 ounce of carbon dioxide as the only byproduct, according to Liss. Ethanol could be a better source of hydrogen than solar power (used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms) because the “fuel is more easily transported and is not limited to being produced in daylight hours,” Liss said.

Liss said his organization is working with energy companies to scale up the technology so it can be commercialized within the next few years.

The federal government and legislators are pumping up support for ethanol as a potential hydrogen source. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) wants $3 million to establish a fuel station for generating hydrogen from ethanol, while the Department of Energy granted Ohio State University $1.1 million to study converting ethanol to hydrogen.

Ethanol, which according to energy market research company Industrial Information Resources has dropped from $1.62 to $1.20 per gallon during the last year, is viewed as a cheaper alternative to gasoline. In April, Obama introduced legislation to establish a 50 percent tax credit toward the cost of building ethanol fueling stations. The House of Representatives recently passed an energy bill that calls for increasing the amount of ethanol used by the petroleum industry to 5 billion gallons per year starting in 2012.

Most of the ethanol produced today is blended into gasoline at 10 percent or sold as E85 (85 percent ethanol), according to Dan Kahn, road test editor at automotive website Adding ethanol boosts an engine’s performance and enables the blended fuels to meet emissions requirements.

Kahn said nearly all engines powering commercial vehicles can use a 10 percent ethanol blend. He said 20 percent to 30 percent blends would not harm vehicles and could help to extend the supply of petroleum. However, “you may have to replace the fuel lines or fuel injectors more often,” according to Kahn.

While the number of vehicles that can use E85 (known as flexible-fuel vehicles) is much smaller, consumers who like to buy made-in-America products may warm to the fuel if they can also save money, Kahn said. If more E85 stations were added, “I could see it become hugely popular,” Kahn said.

According to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, there are 24 flexible-fuel vehicle models, but just 268 fueling stations.

Minnesota will require gasoline to include a 20 percent ethanol mix starting in 2013, according to Perry Aasness, a deputy commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Aasness was one of several authors of a report (.pdf) commissioned by 33 governors that recommends producing 8 billion gallons of ethanol per year for national-security and environmental reasons.

“We have enough corn in this country to make this happen now,” Aasness said. “Looking at $54 to $55 per barrel of oil prices underscores the need to look for alternate sources of energy.”

by John Gartner

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