Researchers are looking at ways to use corn-based ethanol as a way to power hydrogen fuel cells. It would appear to be an environmentally friendly way to get into the hydrogen fuel economy. However, ethanol might not be as environmentally friendly as its proponents claim. Backed by the farm lobby and ag industries such as Archer Daniels Midland, ethanol has plenty of political support. But some researchers say corn-based ethanol is a boondoggle. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports:
Researchers are looking at ways to use corn-based ethanol as a way to power hydrogen fuel cells.
It would appear to be an environmentally friendly way to get into the hydrogen fuel economy.
However, ethanol might not be as environmentally friendly as its proponents claim. Back by the
farm lobby and ag industry such as Archer Daniels Midland, ethanol has plenty of political
support. But some researchers say corn-based ethanol is a boondoggle. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Mary Stucky reports…
This reactor is in a laboratory at the University of Minnesota ticking as it converts ethanol into
hydrogen. Researchers here envision thousands of these inexpensive reactors in communities
across America using ethanol to create hydrogen, which would then be used in fuel cells to
Lanny Schmidt, a Professor of Chemical Engineering, directs the team that created the reactor.
“We’re not claiming our process is the cure-all for the energy crisis or anything like that. But it’s
a potential step along the way. It makes a suggestion of a possible way to go.”
Hydrogen is usually extracted from fossil fuels in dirtier and more costly refineries.
Schmidt says it’s much better to make hydrogen from ethanol.
“It right now looks like probably the most promising liquid non-toxic energy carrier we can think
of if you want renewable fuels.”
Not so fast, says David Pimentel, an agricultural scientist at Cornell University. For years,
Pimentel has warned about what he calls the cost and efficiency and boondoggle of ethanol.
Pimentel says ethanol is a losing proposition.
“It takes 30-percent more energy, including oil and natural gas, primary those two resources to
produce ethanol. That means importing both oil and natural gas because we do not have a
sufficient amount of either one.”
Pimentel says most research on ethanol fails to account for all the energy needed to make the fuel,
such as energy used to make the tractors and irrigate crops. Adding insult to injury, says
Pimentel, ethanol relies on huge government subsidies going to farmers and agri-business.
“If ethanol is such a great fuel source, why are we subsidizing it with 2-billion dollars annually?
There’s big money, as you well know, and there’s politics involved. And the big money is leaking
some of that 2-billion dollars in subsidies to the politicians and good science, sound science,
cannot compete with big money and politics.”
Pimentel also points to environmental damage of growing corn – soil erosion, water pollution
from nitrogen fertilizer and air pollution associated with facilities that make ethanol. But
Pimentel has his detractors.
David Morris runs the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis. Morris is not a scientist,
but he commissioned a study on ethanol. He says Pimentel relies on out-of-date figures and fails
to account for the fact that ethanol production is getting more efficient.
Morris’ findings – a gallon of ethanol contains more than twice the energy needed to produce it.
As for subsidies…
“There’s no doubt that if we did not provide a subsidy for ethanol it would not be competitive
with gasoline. But what we need to understand is that we also subsidize gasoline, and if you took
the percentage of the Pentagon budget, which is spent directly on maintaining access to Middle-
Eastern oil, and impose that at the pump, it would add 25- to 50-cents a gallon. At that point,
ethanol is competitive, under the assumption that you will not need a large military budget to
protect our access to Iowa corn.”
But more efficient than making ethanol from corn might be grass, or even weeds. David Morris
says that’s because you don’t have fertilize or irrigate those kinds of plants, the way you do corn.
“So if we’re talking about ethanol as a primary fuel to truly displace gasoline, we have to talk
about a more abundant feedstock. So instead of the corn kernel, it become the corn stock, or it
becomes fast-growing grasses, or it becomes trees, or sawdust or organic garbage. And then
you’re really talking about a carbohydrate economy.”
Pimentel scoffs at that idea.
“You’ve got the grind that material up, and then to release the sugars, you’ve got to use an acid,
and the yield is not as high. In fact, it would be 60-percent more energy using wood or grass
While scientists and policy people debate whether ethanol is efficient or not, Lanny Schmidt and
his team soldier on in the lab undeterred in their efforts to use ethanol for fuel. Schmidt
understands some of Pimentels’s concerns, but he thinks scientists will find an answer, so ethanol
can be used efficiency enough to help power the new hydrogen economy.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky in Minneapolis, Minnesota.