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Ethanol to Hydrogen Reactor Developed 839

guacamolefoo writes "CNN reports that researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a small (2 ft. high) hydrogen reactor that turns ethanol into hydrogen and then uses a fuel cell to turn the hydrogen into electricity. It notably does not use fossil fuels in the process. I knew that liquor would save us all some day."
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Ethanol to Hydrogen Reactor Developed

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  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:02PM (#8272863) Homepage Journal
    Foster Brooks takes a drive: "Honesht Offishur, I washunt drinking, I hadda shiphon shom gash *hic*"
  • Hmm (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:02PM (#8272867)
    My dad has one of these apparatus, but it works the other way. It's about 8ft tall and converts hydrogen (and some other chemicals) TO ethanol
  • Liquor! (Score:3, Funny)

    by i.r.id10t ( 595143 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:02PM (#8272871)
    The cause of, and solution to, many of the world's problems.
  • by millahtime ( 710421 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:03PM (#8272877) Homepage Journal
    So, I see that part of the saying "Beer is the solution to all lifes problems" is partly true.
  • by WayneConrad ( 312222 ) * <wconrad&yagni,com> on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:03PM (#8272882) Homepage

    It notably does not use fossil fuels in the process.

    It most certainly does use fossil fuels.

    Ethanol takes energy to make. Lots of energy, possibly more than it contains [straightdope.com]. That energy comes from fossil fuels. Ethanol is not an energy source; it is a different way to store energy, and not a particularly efficient one.

    Using Ethanol as a fuel is mostly a way to funnel money to Corn Belt farmers.

    • by pla ( 258480 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:11PM (#8272996) Journal
      Ethanol takes energy to make. Lots of energy, possibly more than it contains. That energy comes from fossil fuels.


      Our current industrial-ag model of crop production consumes quite a lot of fossil fuels. That does not mean the same thing as "growing corn and converting it to ethanol requires fossil fuels".

      Producing ethanol requires nothing more than the sun, some corn, and bacteria. Yes, you'll notice that list includes an energy source, but not "oil".

      Using Ethanol as a fuel is mostly a way to funnel money to Corn Belt farmers.

      To that extent, I will agree with you, because we do use an industrial-ag model of crop production. We don't need to, though.
    • by DaHat ( 247651 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:12PM (#8273012) Homepage
      As a resident of the great state of South Dakota who has an hour commute each day through corn fields... I thank you for your federal tax dollars, not just for the corn, but also for the highways... bowahahahaha!
    • by Bendebecker ( 633126 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:13PM (#8273022) Journal
      As taken from here [doe.gov].

      Ethanol is an alcohol-based alternative fuel produced by fermenting and distilling starch crops that have been converted into simple sugars. Feedstocks for this fuel include corn, barley, and wheat. Ethanol can also be produced from "cellulosic biomass" such as trees and grasses and is called bioethanol.
      Yes it takes a lot of energy to make - a lot of solar energy and water in a method commonly known as 'growing'.
    • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:13PM (#8273031) Homepage Journal
      Ethanol takes energy to make. Lots of energy, possibly more than it contains. That energy comes from fossil fuels.

      Today that may be the case. It may not always be that way. I think that if we used more nuclear power, ethanol would make even more sense.

      I am not opposed to "alternate energy" sources. I think that ethanol, wind, geothermal, fusion, and solar power should all be researched. We have to use what works for now, and that is fossil fuels, but we won't have fossil fuels forever. We need to look towards the future. We need to be prepared to use other sources of energy.

      Even if we didn't use ethanol as a primary fuel source, it can have other benefits. Mixing ethanol with gasoline reduces emissions.

    • by bugnuts ( 94678 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:14PM (#8273045) Journal
      I call bullshit.

      It's true that energy is required to make ethanol, but the most of that energy is bioenergy from the yeast, converting the starch to ethanol + C02. The starch must be heated before it can be converted (gelatinized), and there is some energy required for that but typically done simply from the heat of crushing the corn.

      The bulk would be the distilling process, but you could EASILY create a solar distillery or gelatinizing process, too, which is where the bulk of any added energy comes from.

      Point is, you can be as inefficient as you like and claim that it's some corn cartel. But I'm not pulling out my tinfoil hat just yet.

      As an aside, it's fairly trivial to get a BATF license to distill for fuel.
      • by drew ( 2081 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:47PM (#8273488) Homepage
        I don't think the parent poster was refering to the amount of energy that is required for the distillation process. The point is that predominant agricultural methods, at least in this country, are very heavy in fossil fuel usage. Sure, the sun provides the energy to get the corn to grow, but have you ever seen the size of the tractors that they use to plant the fields, fertilize the fields, harvest the corn, etc. If you actually do the math, chances are that more energy in the form of fossil fuels is expended to get a ton of corn to a food processing plant than even exists in the corn. Even if none of that energy is lost in the distillation process, and even if the distillation was performed entirely using solar power, the ethanol you'd end up with would probably have less energy content than the fossil fuels used up by all of the vehicles used to grow and transport the corn.

        In short, our current agricultural methods would have to be drastically overhauled in order for corn to be truly viable as a source of anything other than food.
    • by WankersRevenge ( 452399 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:14PM (#8273047)
      Do you think it will be possible to switch over the conversion techniques of ethanol to a hydrogen based method once the process gets tooting? So, in a sense, use fossil based methods to get the process started, and then use some of the outputted hydrogen to keep everything moving.

      I'm not a scientist, but I do play one on Slashdot ;)
    • Read the fine print (Score:5, Informative)

      by brokeninside ( 34168 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:19PM (#8273114)
      It takes about 30% more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol that one gets out of burning that same gallon of ethanol. Therefore, each gallon of ethanol pumpled into a car and burnt for energy represents a net energy loss.

      But there are two considerations to make here that are not part of the above statement:

      1. Converting surplus and/or waste products into ethanol would not have the same drawback. Only the energy spent in the actual conversion to ethanol (and not the manufacture of) the base products turned into ethanol would need to be considered.
      2. Converting ethanol into hydrogen and then burning the hydrogen may be far more efficient than burning ethanol. If so, it is possible that each gallon of ethanol represents a net gain of energy.
      • by bugnuts ( 94678 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:27PM (#8273223) Journal
        You're not burning the ethanol, and you're not burning the hydrogen!

        It's converted to electricity, where there is no loss from light (unlike burning).

        It does require energy to extract the ethanol, but you are not doing most of the work. And as I stated above, you could easily have a solar distillery, so the bulk of the energy required would be gelatinizing the starch, and the farm equipment. That is a comparitively small amount, when the yeast and the sun are doing most of the work.
    • by Dirtside ( 91468 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:25PM (#8273195) Journal
      Actually, all fuels take more energy to produce than they contain -- thanks to the same Second Law of Thermodynamics that Uncle Cecil seems to misunderstand at the end of the linked article. (Don't get me wrong, I like Cecil, but I think he made a little mistake.) Anything that produced more energy than was put into it would violate the Second Law.

      You might respond to this by saying, "But it takes less energy to get oil out of the ground than that oil eventually produces when burned!" Well, not exactly. The energy that went into making that oil was expended millions of years ago, and it all started as solar energy that was converted into plant and animal matter by the appropriate biological processes. Not really any different than the ethanol produced by plants that are grown with solar energy.

      It's just that those hundreds of millions of years produced a large reserve of oil, so that the energy expended in finding it, drilling it, refining it, and transporting it is less than the amount of energy we get out of it -- but the total amount of energy that's gone into getting the oil into a usable form *is* still greater than the amount that's produced when it burns.

      The amount of oil available on our planet is finite. There's still plenty of debate about how much is left, but there's never been any indication that more oil is being produced inside the planet, at least not at a rate that's anywhere near what we use it at. Which means we are going to eventually need alternative fuels. (Assuming our rate of consumption doesn't decrease drastically.) That might be 10, 20, 50, 500 years in the future, but it *will* happen.

      All that said, there's also no reason why we have to use fossil fuels to produce ethanol. It's just that fossil fuels are currently the cheapest energy source. That won't remain true forever: the cost of all renewable sources will only ever decrease, as technology improves.
    • by plover ( 150551 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:32PM (#8273299) Homepage Journal
      Ethanol takes energy to make. Lots of energy, possibly more than it contains

      This is true only with respect to burning ethanol as a fuel in an internal combustion engine. This statement does not appear take into account the difference between an internal combustion engine and the conversion of ethanol to hydrogen to electricty to motive power.

      You also are ignoring the fact that the ethanol can be produced using ethanol based energy. The tractor power, the distillation, the factory incidentals, the distribution, all of that energy could be provided by ethanol. That it isn't produced that way yet is due in large part to the lack of a widely available efficient ethanol conversion process.

      The "hydrogen-based energy economy" has been hampered by the fact that hydrogen is not as easy to deliver as gasoline. However, ethanol is exactly as easy to deliver as gasoline, and the infrastruture already exists to do so. The problems with converting methanol or ethanol to hydrogen for fuel cells (the expense of the platinum catalysts) has been one of the final roadblocks to widespread adoption of fuel cell powered vehicles.

      Crying "corn belt subsidy" before the technology even sees the light of day is counter-productive. Yes, some people are going to get filthy rich off of whatever fuel supplants oil. Unethical people will make financially-motivated decisions to use a "dirty" process and release lots of pollution. There will be more crooked deals with more crooked politicians, there will be kickbacks and porkbarrels the likes of which will relegate Haliburton and Cheney to the junior varsity level. Some oil industry barons will be ruined, many oil industry workers will lose their jobs, and the world will be changed. But it needs to change. The new direction may or may not be ethanol, but it can't remain fossil fuel based forever. And we need to explore those alternatives now.

    • by hpulley ( 587866 ) <hpulley4@yah[ ]com ['oo.' in gap]> on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:36PM (#8273341) Homepage

      This assumes that we are using current techniques to farm the corn and ferment and distill it. If the farm machinery can use biodiesel [biodiesel.org] instead of fossil diesel then that part is taken out. If the the still can be heated using solar heating (direct solar heating [ips-solar.com], not using inefficient solar cells), some use of wind, etc. then it may be possible to make the equation go positive for us.

      As long as the input is fossil fuels or ethanol or hydrogen (perpetual motion machine, anyone?), efficiency means we'll come out behind. As plants learned long ago, you need outside input of power for it to be worthwhile which is why some researchers are looking at bacterial catylists among other things [fsu.edu] to split out the hydrogen from water. Plants left hydrogen behind a long time ago [sciencedaily.com] so perhaps we're going down a dead end.

    • by VValdo ( 10446 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:47PM (#8273485)
      Using Ethanol as a fuel is mostly a way to funnel money to Corn Belt farmers.

      The New York Times ran an interesting story [xent.com] about agriculture and obesity in October, basically discussing how, among other things, American corn has traditionally been so overproduced that corn-growers are desperate to find ways to use it. In the 19th century, the solution was to use it to make alcohol-- the average US citizen's consumption of corn-based alcohol then was more than FIVE times what it is now.

      Following the backlash against drinking alcohol around the turn of the century, now much of the corn glut is used as a cheep sweetener. Corn syrup has replaced sugar in most sodas, candy, etc since the 1980s. The article suggests that the move from corn-alcohol to corn-syrup is responsible for the 60% obesity increase plus dramatic increases in "adult-onset" Diabetes.

      So is the corn-as-fuel studies a similar way to answer the question-- how do we get rid of all this corn?

      Also, see this NYTimes editorial [foodfunders.org]. Some interesting stats in there as well.

    • by Myrv ( 305480 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:08PM (#8273827)
      While production of ethanol can be inefficient rarely does it result in a net energy loss. Several different studies show anywhere from a 38% net gain in energy to over 100% depending on methods use. The generally cited claim of a net energy loss from producing ethanol all seem to come from only one paper written by David Pimental. To support his claims he seems to have taken a worst pratices view for every step in the production process, a realworld combination found in less than 5% of current ethanol production. The more comphrensive studies I've been able to find show a slight, albeit not stellar, net gain in energy. The most recent (2002) by Michigan State shows a net gain of 0.56 MJ/MJ of input for corn based ethanol production. If one looks at Cellulose based ethonal production, studies show almost a 2.5 net energy gain and it is easier on the environment since it requires less maintenance and fewer fertilizers.

      For reference this site has some good links, including a rebuttal of the Pimental paper (as well as showing the Pimental article).

      http://www.econet.sk.ca/pages/issues/ethanolinfo ne tenergybalance.htm
  • by stratjakt ( 596332 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:03PM (#8272891) Journal
    .. than an ethanol powered engine?
  • More efficient (Score:5, Informative)

    by Lord Grey ( 463613 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:04PM (#8272897)
    A short press release that contains a bit more information about how this works can be found here [iop.org], on the Institute of Physics web site.

    One item of interest is that this new technique converts ethanol to hydrogen at a 60% efficiency rate, compared to the 20% efficiency rate with current technology.

  • by nycsubway ( 79012 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:04PM (#8272901) Homepage
    This kind of reminds me of when marty got stuck in the 1800s and the doc tried to put alcohol in the delorean, and it blew out some part of it...

    Um.... anyway. This technology is a much better thing than the movie.

  • by JungleBoy ( 7578 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:04PM (#8272903)
    I wonder how much Fossil Fuel is needed to produce the Ethanol? I seriously doubt this is a truly Fossil Fuel Free[tm] method of making Hydrogen fuel.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:05PM (#8272911)
    to create a 1-1.5 gallons of ethanol. Cover article of Harpers last month...
  • by bugnuts ( 94678 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:05PM (#8272914) Journal
    Homer: "one for you" [fills tank]
    Homer: "one for me" [fills mouth]
  • heheh (Score:3, Funny)

    by grub ( 11606 ) <slashdot@grub.net> on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:05PM (#8272915) Homepage Journal

    Cop : You're under arrest for making illegal alcohol in a still.

    Me : Isth not a thtill, isth a react..er..belch

    Cop : Your reactor made you puke on my shoes.

  • Corn ain't free! (Score:3, Redundant)

    by leoxx ( 992 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:06PM (#8272934) Homepage Journal
    Unfortunately it still takes fossil fuels to grow corn. I didn't see any mention of this in the article, but it would be insteresting to find out if the total amount of fossil fuels (from things like farm equipment, fertilizers, etc) that goes into growing the corn to create the ethanol to create the hydrogen is the same, lower, or even more than that required to turn fossil fuels into hydrogen directly. If its the same as or higher than the direct route, then this "breakthrough" isn't all that great.
    • by vaguelyamused ( 535377 ) <jsimons@rocketmail.com> on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:16PM (#8273067)
      It also takes lots of fossil fuels to remove more fossil fuels from underground. We don't have to ship corn from Alaska, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Moving and placing oil rigs and driling equipmen, laying pipelines and fueling supertankers has got to be more fuel intesive than plowing, planting and fertilizing a field.

      How many gallons of oil does it take to put a gallon of gasoline in your tank. And remember one gallon of oil does not equal one gallon of gasoline.

      Also, if you are going to be paying money to fuel your car would you rather pay it to American farmers and corporations or foreign oil barons and corporations.

    • by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) <bittercode@gmail> on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:21PM (#8273138) Homepage Journal
      A lot of people are saying this- but it seems to imply that farming equipment, etc. must always run on fossil fuels.

      It sounds a lot to me like saying - "yeah that new C language seems o.k. but you still need language X to write a compiler for it- so what's the point" But once you move beyond that- you can drop language X or in this case fossil fuels. What if your farm equipment starts running on fuel cells? The move from fossil fuels has to take place in steps.

      • A lot of people are saying this- but it seems to imply that farming equipment, etc. must always run on fossil fuels.

        I think they're referring to the fact that some fertilizers are actually refined from petroleum products.

    • Re:Corn ain't free! (Score:4, Informative)

      by SirWhoopass ( 108232 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:47PM (#8273493)
      This USDA paper [usda.gov] addresses the issue. It compares various ethanol studies and concludes a positive energy balance in production.
  • by dethl ( 626353 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:06PM (#8272936)
    The Minnesota researchers envision people buying ethanol to power the small fuel cell in their basements. The cell could produce 1 kilowatt of power, nearly enough for an average home.

    But not anywhere close enough for your average Slashdot user.
  • Missing info (Score:5, Informative)

    by bravehamster ( 44836 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:07PM (#8272947) Homepage Journal
    That article is pretty damn skimpy on the details. Check out this one [nature.com] which I found at ArsTechnica. Perhaps the most important detail is that a rhodium-based catalyst needs to be heated to 700 celsius for the reaction to have any efficiency.

  • Ethanol production? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by crushinator ( 212593 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:09PM (#8272970)
    How is ethanol produced, commercially?

    Beer has taught me that yeast create ethanol as a metabolic waste product, right? I believe that yeast also create carbon dioxide as a waste product.

    I doubt that large-scale industral ethanol plants are using yeast colonies for production... but what do they use? And what are the waste products from that process?

    I understand that reducing our reliance on fossil fules is a good thing. However, if substantial amounts of greenhouse (or other undesirable) gas emissions result from the ethanol production process, aren't we just playing Whack-A-Mole with the source of the pollution?

    • by Fnkmaster ( 89084 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:52PM (#8273566)
      Depends. The nice thing is there are lots of readily available technologies to make ethanol, thanks to its many industrial and... other uses. Generally people argue that ethanol is a terrible source of energy because they look at ethanol production from corn in the midwest United States as a model - which is a very silly and inefficient way to make ethanol since growing and harvesting corn is quite costly in energy usage. However, this method is heavily subsidized by the government in the US making it vaguely economically plausible when you account for all the government intervention. There are however economically feasible methods of producing ethanol that don't involve corn growing or harvesting at all - broadly speaking, "bioethanol" refers to ethanol produced from cellulose-laden materials, which are pretty universally available and mighty cheap since they aren't generally very good at feeding humans and they tend to grow without much irrigation or human intervention needed. Not to mention all the wood chips, grass clippings, cardboard, corn husks/stover, and other "waste" sources of cellulose out there in the US. Either way you do it, though, the key step of ethanol production step is fermentation, which still relies on yeast colonies.

      But the real trick is reducing the costs of processing cellulose to ethanol to make it competitive with processing glucose from corn (which is more easily broken down) into ethanol. This is trivial when you eliminate all the subsidies, it's just a bit harder when you consider the heavy corn ethanol subsidies. However, companies like Iogen [iogen.ca] have been producing much more efficient techniques such as enzymatic hydrolysis for breaking down cellulose into an easily fermentable form - which they goes into the yeast fermentation process. The technology is already being deployed at modest scale factories.

      So the answer is that yes, yeast do the fermentation. And to make fossil fuel-free, net energy positive ethanol, you just add some weak acid or strong enzymes to the mix earlier on to make sugars that are more easily fermented. As for carbon emissions (as CO2 or otherwise), which you mention, ethanol from cellulose "consumes" as much carbon in the growing plants as it releases when combusted, and in that sense it is both renewable and net-carbon-neutral to the environment. So does ethanol from corn, though the fact that the overall energy production is negative in that case means that the energy deficit has to be made up, generally by burning fossil fuels to generate energy for growing and havesting corn.

      Which brings us back to many people complaining here on Slashdot that ethanol is bad for the environment. They just don't understand that ethanol != corn ethanol.

  • Truly renewable (Score:3, Interesting)

    by addie ( 470476 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:09PM (#8272973)
    This is very good news. I already use ethanol blend gasoline in my car. Although it is a bit more expensive, it burns cleaner and (obviously) uses less fossil fuels to produce. There was a saying in the mining engineering department at university: If it can't be grown, it's gotta be mined. If we can move more and more toward the growing, then we're finally truly moving toward a renewable energy economy.

    Those GM Hywire commercials are pretty to look at, but don't make it clear to the general public how difficult energy-wise it is to actually produce hydrogen. I hope more research funds get pumped into this kind of technology so we can move toward a hydrogen future at a meanginful pace.
  • Ugh... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lukewarmfusion ( 726141 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:09PM (#8272975) Homepage Journal
    We have an Ethanol plant in our town. It smells awful. When the wind changes a bit - usually when it's getting colder, around football season - it blows right across campus. Freshman used to think it smelled like baking bread. OT, I know. But I wouldn't wish Ethanol on anyone. It'll make you sick, and you don't even have to ingest any..
    • Re:Ugh... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by jdgeorge ( 18767 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:30PM (#8273270)
      We have an Ethanol plant in our town. It smells awful. When the wind changes a bit - usually when it's getting colder, around football season - it blows right across campus. Freshman used to think it smelled like baking bread. OT, I know. But I wouldn't wish Ethanol on anyone. It'll make you sick, and you don't even have to ingest any..

      I take it you've never sniffed the air downwind of a petrolium refinery or an oil well....
  • by Verteiron ( 224042 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:10PM (#8272988) Homepage
    Yeap, the second law of thermodynamics IS a problem. Let's see, efficiently convert ethanol into hydrogen? Fine. Have a fuel cell that efficiently converts hydrogen into power we can use? Great.

    But it uses no fossil fuels? Well, maybe not directly, but... let's see, where do we get ethanol? Hmm. Well, most of it comes from corn. Corn treated with heat. That heat comes from natural gas, usually. So there's a fossil fuel. What else? Corn has to be harvested. Usually this involves tractors, harvesters, and other large pieces of farm equipment that generally run on.. d'oh! More fossil fuel!

    According to the US Dept. of Energy, creating ethanol takes about 29% more energy than it provides. Since most of that energy going into the ethanol-creation process is fossil fuel-based, we'd probably be better off just burning the fossil fuels directly. Using ethanol just burns them up even faster.

    A source for more ethanol numbers: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/031128.html [straightdope.com]
    • Usually this involves tractors, harvesters, and other large pieces of farm equipment that generally run on.. d'oh! More fossil fuel!

      And when we have powerful enough fuel-cell enginges, we won't have all that farm equipment relying on fossil fuels, so they will be taken out of the equation.

    • Corn has to be harvested. Usually this involves tractors, harvesters, and other large pieces of farm equipment that generally run on.. d'oh! More fossil fuel!

      The idea was to run stuff like tractors on hydrogen created from ethanol... :-)

    • please... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by *weasel ( 174362 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:37PM (#8273349)
      As if no-one had ever used a C compiler to compile their original New-Language compiler, and then threw the C away entirely.

      the shift here is from using fossil fuels that take many years of pressure and heat to create, and mostly lie across oceans - to a fuel source that only takes bacteria, the sun, and a few weeks to create, and can be produced in abundance locally.

      if /nothing/ else - the energy independence is a huge step forward.

      and the numbers for ethanol creation are referring to -engine-grade-ethanol- which must be (expensively) purified. the ethanol source for the reactor in question -doesn't-.

      not to mention that the IOP article says that this ethanol->hydrogen reactor is 3x as efficient as an ethanol engine directly.
    • by SirWhoopass ( 108232 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:02PM (#8273735)
      This USDA paper [usda.gov] concludes that ethanol production provides more energy than it uses (not in an absolute sense, of course, but we're not counting the sun-supplied energy in the corn). The paper concludes a 34% energy gain.

      The paper addresses some of the issues raised in the column you linked. Pimentel in particular. It compares the results of several studies and attempts to address them.

      Pimentel (who comes up with the negative energy results) tried to include some very hard to quantify items, such as the energy required to build the farm machinery that was used to grow the corn. Certainly a valid input, but he provides no details as to how he came up with his numbers.

  • by so sue mee ( 660717 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:13PM (#8273024)
    Ever noticed how most foods and drinks are sweetened with "high fructose corn syrup", rather than the simpler "sugar", and thought it was a bit odd? I'd always just assumed that it was to disguise the ingredient, but that seemed pointless given the nutritional listing of sugar content. Apparently the resolution is that the US government mandates a price for sugar which is about twice the global one. It does not mandate such a price for corn syrup, so corn syrup is cheaper. The major manufacturer of corn syrup (Archer Daniels Midland [admworld.com]) "donates" generously to both parties to ensure the continuation of this policy.

    (ADM also runs a mammoth ethanol boondoggle [cato.org] based on government subsidies. Every dollar of profits earned by their corn sweetener operation costs consumers ~10$, every dollar earned by their ethanol operation costs taxpayers ~$30.) (ADM also runs a mammoth ethanol boondoggle based on government subsidies. Every dollar of profits earned by their corn sweetener operation costs consumers ~10$, every dollar earned by their ethanol operation costs taxpayers ~$30.)
    • by parc ( 25467 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:02PM (#8273727)
      HFCS is 75% sweeter than sugar. Manufacturers can use less sweetener for the same amount of finished product to obtain the same flavor.
      Other attributes of HFCS over sugar (from http://food.oregonstate.edu/sugar/hfcs.html):

      # retain moisture and/or prevent drying out
      # control crystallization
      # produce an osmotic pressure that is higher than for sucrose or medium invert sugar and thereby help control microbiological growth or help in penetration of cell membranes.
      # provide a ready yeast-fermentable substrate
      # blend easily with sweeteners, acids, and flavorings
      # provide a controllable substrate for browning and Maillard reaction.
      # impart a degree of sweetness that is essentially the same as in invert liquid sugar
      # high sweetness
      # low viscosity
      # reduced tendency toward characterization
      # costs less than liquid sucrose or corn syrup blends
      # retain moisture and/or prevent drying out

      In short, in a mass-production environment, sugar is used where it needs to be used, and HFCS is used where it can be used. I imagine ADM donates liberally to political parties for other reasons. The biggest one that comes to mind is genetic patents.
    • by danharan ( 714822 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:14PM (#8273916) Journal
      Wow. A Cato Institute article that quotes a Mother Jones reporter. Politics sure does make for strange bedfellows...
    • by pavon ( 30274 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:32PM (#8274155)
      The ratio of profits to subsidy is completely meaningless number. For example, if they were to turn around next year and give their employees a small raise which cut into their profits in half, it would mean that we pay $60 for every dollar of profit they make, but that doesn't mean they are wasting twice as much money.

      A more usefull number would be the ratio of revenue to subsidy. I couldn't find that in the report you linked, but assuming their profit margin is about 10%, then for every dollar I pay for ethanol another three dollars comes from the taxpayers.
  • no fossil fuels? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by flint ( 118836 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:19PM (#8273108)
    Maybe someone with more expertise can clarify this or tell me I'm missing the point...

    Since ethanol is usually made from plants which have to be cultivated by equipment that burns oil -- combines, tankers, pumps, etc -- my understanding is that the production of ethanol is actually wasteful of fossil fuels. I've read (but haven't been able to corroborate) that the energy required to produce a gallon of ethanol is actually more than the energy produced by a gallon of ethanol.

    So, is it really cleaner when you look at the big picture? Is it more efficient?

    There's also the cost. Corn-based ethanol is inexpensive because of the huge subsidies the US government gives corn growers. There have been some primetime specials lately connecting the dots between lobbyists, corn production, and the ever growing waistlines of Americans. The small blurb in the article regarding economic potential for farmers is a huge understatement considering these subsidies.

    Is this just cool a Good Thing?
  • by verloren ( 523497 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:22PM (#8273161)
    From the article: "The cell could produce 1 kilowatt of power, nearly enough for an average home."

    A bit of googling (http://www.arctic-cat.com/generators/wattage.asp) turns up numbers showing that an iron takes about 1.2KW, or just over 1KW for a toaster. So almost enough for an average home, so long as I wander round the house turning off everything else before flattening my shirt or browning some wheat. That's handy.

    (This occured to me because I have a fusebox that can't cope with me using a medium iron and an electric heater on low in the same room. Domestic bliss.)
    • by certsoft ( 442059 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:38PM (#8273363) Homepage
      iron takes about 1.2KW, or just over 1KW for a toaster.

      Yes, but you don't use that iron or toaster 24 hours per day, do you? If it generates 1KW, and you run it 24 hours per day, that 24KWH per day. My latest electricity bill says I used 22KWH last month.

      Generally a fuel cell will be used to charge a battery bank which will then be used to power a DC to AC inverter (to get 110 or 220VAC for normal appliances). The battery provides the peak current required for heavy loads, the fuel cell keeps the battery charged.

  • Details (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DumbSwede ( 521261 ) <slashdotbin@hotmail.com> on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:26PM (#8273207) Homepage Journal
    Ethanol Chemical Formula C2H6O

    So after liberating some (all) of the hydrogen we are left with C2 and O I would assume it would pick up O2 from the air and make C02 as a by product, with potentially some water also.

    Last time I checked C02 was a greenhouse gas. It doesn't add to CO2 levels if (big if) the sources for ethanol production extract the CO2 from the atmosphere at the same rate. Keep in mind it isn't just the raw materials, but energy needed to process and create the ethanol, which may cause pollution in the process.

    I would have expected CNN to give the actual chemical by-products, and not just summarize as "no greenhouse gasses" which is extremely misleading. I would also be interested to know how many of the H6 get truly extracted, and what remainder go into water (which would say something about efficiency and power density). Or whether some more exotic compounds are left behind that just C02 and H20 (even if only in trace amounts). A molecule here, a molecule there, and sometimes things aren't as benign as one might first assume.

    Good news in any event, just wish there where more details.

  • by MBraynard ( 653724 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:28PM (#8273241) Journal
    Ethanol being added to fuel is a major reason that the smog in Los Angeles is so bad. I'm not saying this is a bad idea, but the pollution is something a lot of people forget about when considering this heavily-subsidized 'renewable' source of energy.

    Ethanol causes Pollution too [eurekalert.org]
    Ethanol wrong for CA [theindependent.com]

    I've seen other materials cited saying that ethanol is not harmful. Regardless, I'm sure that the pollution that is generated by your corn-fed in-house ethanol-hydrogen fuel cell will be contained by the time this thing gets to market.

    • by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @06:19PM (#8274757) Journal
      Ethanol = major pollution

      Well, no--not quite. Burning ethanol, in combination with gasoline, in some automobiles, may result in increased emissions. Newer vehicles are designed to better cope with the slightly different combustion techniques required to burn ethanol cleanly.

      The question becomes a complete non-issue when discussing fuel cells. No ethanol-air combustion takes place under those circumstances, so no aldehydes are generated.

      Not to be flip, but the reason why the smog is so bad in Los Angeles is because there's too damn many people driving oversized single-occupant vehicles. (It's also a consequence partly of geography--the city's location is well-suited for trapping contaminated air.)

  • Not worth it? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Andronicus ( 263666 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:30PM (#8273271) Homepage
    This is a laudable achievement.

    The hydrogen is envisioned to replace petrochemicals in automotive uses and small-scale electrical generation with fuel-cells.

    The only problem is the ethanol source. Right now it is pretty much corn, period. With present technology, much petrochemicals must be expended to grow the corn and refine it into Ethanol. The fact that no petrochemicals are used in the subsequent conversion to hydrogen is lost on the fact that a large amount of petrochemicals were burned to get the ethanol in the first place.

    If a suitably-credentialed person does the math, I think we'd probably find that less petrochemicals would be burned in generating the electricity conventionally, or powering the car conventionally.

    We'll have to wait for future tech that can generate the ethanol or hydrogen without using, or by using significantly less petrochemicals.

    My idea shouldn't be surprising, because no process is ever 100% efficient.
  • by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:35PM (#8273335)
    Ethanol is a lot easier to transport, refill,... than hydrogen. I bet a lot of energy is wasted in the ethanol->hydrogen reaction. So why not just use the ethanol directly?

    Ethanol has been used as a fuel for a long time in many countries, often substituted on a percentage basis with regular gas. It was especially useful during wars etc when petroleum were in short supply.

    • by FreeUser ( 11483 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:41PM (#8274275)
      Ethanol is a lot easier to transport, refill,... than hydrogen. I bet a lot of energy is wasted in the ethanol->hydrogen reaction. So why not just use the ethanol directly?

      More energy is used to purify the ethanol to standards that make it compliant with current internal combustion engines than is ever won back from burning the ethanol. I.e. the ethanol must be modified to emulate gasoline in order to be burned directly, and that takes a lot of energy.

      Ethanol having its hydrogen extracted doesn't require any such purification process, making the conversion of ethanol->hydrogen, then burning the hydrogen, vastly more effecient than burning the ethanol directly. three times more effecient, according to the article. This leads to a situation where we can remove traditional energy sources from the equation, using the sun+soil+water to grow the crop, using sun+some small amount of energy to ferment, using some small amount of energy to extract the hydrogen, then burning the hydrogen. As long as the energy won from the sun is greater than the energy used to ferment the ethanol and to extract the hydrogen we have a self-sustaining energy economy (assuming we aren't draining acquafers and the like).

      Best of all, we can produce the energy here at home, and stop pouring dollars into countries with regressive religions and toxic idealogies...which in turn might do something to slow the spread of toxic idealogies in our own countries.
  • by greywar ( 640908 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @04:42PM (#8273411) Journal
    To the nay sayers pointing out that it takes 1-1.5 gallons of fossil fuels to make one gallon of ethanol you missed a important part of this. "Ethanol can usually only be burnt if it is completely free of water - and getting the water out is an energy-intensive process. Schmidt's reactor works with wet ethanol." So this doesnt require PURE ethanol, it can accept the water being left in, which according to that statement is a large part of the energy intensive process to make ethanol. So this isn't the 'pure' ethanol.
  • by PseudononymousCoward ( 592417 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:06PM (#8273806)
    If ethanol is actually to play an increasing role in the energy needs of the first world (or the US specifically), it will not come from corn, it will be a result of the refining of sugar cane in Latin & South America & the Caribbean. Sugar cane has a much higher energy level and is much easier to convert to ethanol.

    Quick quiz: which nation is the largest producer of ethanol, and what is its feedstock?

    And as long as we are injecting facts into this discussion (yes, I'm new here...), while corn production does require lots of water, less than a third of US corn production is irrigated.

    And finally, as for all of the "Does producing ethanol require more energy than it uses" discussion, the real question is whether ethanol is an efficient mechanism to capture solar energy and store it in chemical form. The evidence is mixed. The professor at Cornell who is frequently cited is David Pimentel, an entymologist. According to those who specialize in energy, the conclusion for corn-based ethanol is much, much more nuanced. Newer processing plants (those built in the last 3 years) fed by farmers using appropriate nitrogen application techniques are energy-positive. But there are many legacy plants (as well as legacy farmers). Again, in the long-term, the cost of conversion & transport from warmer climes is actually more relevant, though.

    And yes, by the way, IAAAE (I am an agricultural economist). In fact, IAAGE (I am a grains economist for a Big Ten University)

    Answer: Brazil, sugar cane.
  • by cr0sh ( 43134 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @05:51PM (#8274416) Homepage
    Actually, there is a much, much better crop that could be used for its production. This crop actually fixes nitrogen into the soil, so no fertilizers (made from oil) need to be used (if used in rotation with other food crops, so much the better), it is naturally disease and pest resistant (so no oil-based pesticides/herbicides needed), has a ton of other uses (not just for fuel, but for food, clothing, and other things too!) and can grow anywhere.

    What is this miracle crop, you might ask?

    This miracle crop scares our government, and numerous other larg-scale entities (such as various corporations), because of its multitude of uses, and the fact that it is so easy to grow. At one time, it was grown in plentiful amounts right here in the United States. Then a ban was induced in the early part of the twentieth century (but was lifted briefly for World War 2), and farmers couldn't grow it. Recently, products made from it came under our government's eye again - but the courts beat them back once more (of course, these products are made mostly in Canada, or from the crop grown in Canada). We, the people, are being denied access to growing this crop, and reaping its benefits, by our own government. A government started with a document entitled the "Declaration of Independence" - written on paper made from the very fibers of the crop denied to us today!

    So, what is this wonderous crop, you plea?

    Say it loud - say it proud - let the world and our corrupt politicians know it: HEMP! HEMP! HEMP!

  • by hey hey hey ( 659173 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @06:17PM (#8274743)
    I got this from ScienceNow (a subscription only sister site to Science, where the original technical article was published):

    Now, Lanny Schmidt of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Xenophon Verykios of the University of Patras, Greece, and colleagues have developed a potentially portable ethanol converter. In it, a solution of ethanol and water passes through a fuel injector--a nozzle that ordinarily pumps gasoline into a car's motor--and into a gently heated chamber, where it vaporizes and mixes with air. The mixture then passes through a porous plug of aluminum oxide covered with rhodium and cerium oxide, which catalyzes reactions that yield hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The reactions heat the catalyst to over 700C, which keeps the process going. The gadget converts essentially all of the hydrogen in ethanol into hydrogen gas, the researchers report.

    "Their process has the advantage that it is very, very fast," says James Dumesic, a chemical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is working on producing hydrogen from sugars. But he points out that the ethanol process also generates a lot of carbon monoxide, which the high-power fuel cells that might someday propel cars cannot tolerate. Gabor Somorjai, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that rhodium happens to be "the most expensive catalyst you can ever make."

  • by PourYourselfSomeTea ( 611000 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @07:07PM (#8275222)
    Just think about it folks. Why is oil so cheap (compared to its energy cost) to harvest right now? Because there's a century of infrastructure built around its harvest. There are researchers making things more efficient, oil wells galore, efficient refineries, and why? Because we put a whole bunch of money and time into the research of it.

    The total cost of delivery of a single gallon of gasoline is still quite high. It has to be mined, shipped to refineries (which uses oil!) refined in several stages (also uses oil), then shipped in individual semi-trucks (also uses oil) to get to it's final destination, which is for the most part a huge network of individual mom-and-pop owned gas stations. In addition to this, tankers fall over, refineries produce the occasional bad batch, pipelines break and need repair (oh boy, how about those SUVs needed to get to the point the pipeline broke in alaska), there are oil spills in Alaska, oil tanker ships. All these indirectly use oil to harvest oil.

    As opposed to the infrastructure surrounding ethanol -- a fledgeling (no, I don't mean ADM) industry with some government and corporate funding and only 30 years of poorly funded research backing it. In 100 years, where will we be with this? One really darned great thing about grain alcohol, is that nearly every place in the non-desert world is suitable for growing some kind of grain that can be changed. Sugar cane, barley, hops, corn, rice. All can be turned into alcohol organically, with yeast, and the varieties of each can be grown in nearly every clime in the world, as opposed to having to be mined and distributed on the hub-and-spoke system. Locally managed stills can make enough ethanol to power entire towns for the most part, with a surplus. Believe me, we know the volume homemade, illegal, inefficient, made-by-the-village-drunk 'stills can produce in Arkansas and Tennessee. How about efficient stills made by corporations with the money to put into the research of draining every last drop out of the infrastructure they create? No long, hazardous shipping across outdated hub-and-spoke shipping lines. Fine-grained (no pun intended) distributed, low cost production facilities are a much better way of creating electricity and vehicle fuel.

    The really great thing is that all these grains don't /NEED/ a ton of upkeep to grow, we just do a ton of upkeep to keep it edible. No one gives a sweet damn if the corn they use to power their vehicle was infested with ergot or weevils or blight, or little green bugs. It's all hydrogen in the end.

    This can be the key, folks. This can avert the disaster heading our way once oil becomes expensive to mine. We just have to put the money in now while we can.
    • by PourYourselfSomeTea ( 611000 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @07:31PM (#8275386)
      Oh, and a few more things that turn into ethanol quite readily.

      1. Potatoes (really good. soil-healthy crop)
      2. Grapes
      3. Wheat
      4. Sugar Beets
      5. Honey
      6. Rye
      7. Apples
      8. Peaches
      9. Oats
      10. Several types of hardy grasses, including milkweed, dandelions, cattails.

      The list goes on. What's more, there's a surplus of all these every year. Regularly, crops simply get dumped into the ocean to mitigate price drops caused by low supply/demand ratio. We already farm too well. What if farmers could sell their entire surplus, every year? The revival of agriculture as a way of life. Even the >gasp small-farm -- remember what I said about local farming being a better way to produce energy because you don't have to ship it?!
  • by Slur ( 61510 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:01PM (#8276509) Homepage Journal

    The next step is to begin working to genetically engineer plants that produce more of the kinds of materials that benefit the distillation and catalysis of ethanol. Corn is a poor energy source when you consider what it takes to grow it, and how devastating modern agriculture is to the soil.

    Not to mention the fact that agriculture is essentially owned and regulated by Big Oil, who also own the companies that make seeds and the companies which make nitrogen fertilizers. No serious progress is likely to be made in agriculture or energy technology as long as the interests of Big Oil remain paramount.

    The smart direction, I think, is to look at aquatic plants, algae, bacteria, and the like. If a bacterium or yeast could be developed to produce ethanol in sufficient quantity, and a closed system could be developed that takes in sunlight and produces all the kinds of things bacteria and yeasts produce - ethyl, nitrogen, methane, etc., it would go an amazingly long way towards improving the efficiency of these processes.

    The trouble with our current crude methods is that they are simply unsustainable and produce far too much pollution and waste.

    Recently a technique was developed [changingworldtech.com] to convert any kind of solid waste into constituent materials, including a rich form of oil. This project was undertaken with support from ButterBall because the costs of waste disposal for their turkey abattoirs are hilariously high.

    Now imagine a similar kind of energy plant, except instead of slow-heating wastes and so forth, it has a chain of vats containing various forms of bacteria, single-celled organisms, simple plants, etc., in a closed ecosystem. Wastes and other materials from one vat are leeched out and channeled to the next vat in line. Nitrogen and CO2 are funneled to the plants, and their oxygen is fed to some single-celled creatures. Round it goes, probably feeding back into itself in a closed loop. Except, of course it isn't a closed loop. Free materials like oxygen, CO2, nitrogen, hydrogen, etc., are constantly being added to the system along with plenty of sunlight. The result is that you end up with a huge abundance of excess which can be siphoned off.

    The grail of energy will be to engineer or discover bacteria capable of freeing hydrogen itself. Maybe some of those deep-sea hot vent varieties have some creative genetic ideas!

    We are so used to thinking of energy in terms of limitations, and so there seems to be a rush to knock energy out quickly and with great force. The fact is, slower, gentler, more methodical methods are available using the power of living cells. We only have to learn how to utilize and program these molecular machines to do our bidding.

    I have a friend who is utterly convinced that Free Energy Devices (also known as Zero-Point Energy Taps) are possible, they exist, and they are suppressed by Big Energy interests. I am naturally skeptical of the idea, but at the same time I'm open to the possibility, if only because at the atomic level everything is going a million miles an hour all the time. If you could tap that energy at the molecular scale I believe you could produce - essentially - a perpetual-energy device.

    For example, if you were able to build a device on the nano-scale which captures electrons - like a cashmere sweater - and then instead of just forming a diffuse cloud of electrons were able to channel those electrons into a medium and hold them... well you get the idea. We know static is real, and we know a little bit of it can produce a pretty impressive shock. If a trillion of these devices could fit into a square foot then I imagine you could extract a pretty impressive amount of electrical energy.

    There have to be thousands of ways to efficiently borrow excess energy. Another method that occurs to me is to layer materials in a manner such that electrons are caused to flow in a specific direction. I'd be interested to know if layering materials - let's say nickel and copper - can produce energy flow passively, or if a catalyst such as acid or NaCl is always required to "pull" electrons out.

  • by cowtamer ( 311087 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @11:34PM (#8277029) Journal
    For a bunch of people who call themselves nerds, the /. crowd has certainly been short-sighted lately. Nerd!=whiner.

    A compact ethanol to hydrogen reformer means that at least two of the the LARGEST problems stopping the adoption of hydrogen have been solved

    1) Transportation:

    The existing gasoline transport/storage/dissemination architecture can be used for ethanol

    2) Net production of CO2

    Until now, the cheapest ways to produce hydrogen have relized on fossil fuel consumption. Now hydrogen can be derived from biomass.

    To everyone who complains about ethanol subsidies: corn is NOT the only way to make ethanol. You could probably find a way to ferment whatever is fastest growing--after all, this is not for human consumption.

    In summary, I hope this thing is for real...

You will never amount to much. -- Munich Schoolmaster, to Albert Einstein, age 10