Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are now here to transport people. On June 30, America Honda Motor Co. announced it had leased a hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell automobile for $500/month to a consumer in California. A few days later, California-based AeroVironment announced that it had completed two successful test flights of a hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell airplane.

Hydrogen fuel-cell advocates hail these developments for their potential to reduce the nation's dependence on oil — and for their attractive environmental benefits. Hydrogen fuel-cell operation produces no pollution and no greenhouse gases; the only byproduct is water.

For farmers, however, the important question is whether or not ethanol will play a role in producing the hydrogen needed to make fuel cells work.

According to Monte Shaw, Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) communications director, ethanol has significant advantages over methanol, natural gas or petroleum for use at fueling stations for hydrogen-powered automobiles and airplanes.

“We're very excited about using ethanol as a bridge fuel that can get us to the ultimate, clean-fuel scenario,” says Shaw. “Ethanol can utilize the existing petroleum infrastructure to become future fueling stations for hydrogen.”

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen. Like a battery, these fuel cells rely on chemistry rather than combustion to generate power. Unlike batteries, hydrogen fuel cells never run down or need recharging. They do require refueling, however. Oxygen can be easily extracted from air, but hydrogen is expensive to produce and difficult to store and transport.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “hydrogen is three to four times as expensive to produce as gasoline (when produced from its most affordable source, natural gas).” Shaw, however, points out that the nation lacks a national retail distribution network for natural gas. He says that's why ethanol would likely be more suitable as a “bridge fuel” for hydrogen.

“Ethanol is a hydrogen-rich liquid, which overcomes both the storage and infrastructure challenges of hydrogen,” reports Jeffrey Bentley and Robert Derby in an RFA publication on ethanol and fuel cells. “(It) offers a practical solution to the challenge of providing hydrogen to fuel cells onboard vehicles.”

Ethanol is also a renewable fuel that poses very few environmental, health or safety hazards. In fact, pollutants from an ethanol fuel-cell vehicle are less than half those emitted from even a gasoline hybrid vehicle, according to the RFA.

Although available now, hydrogen fuel cells won't likely be used by significant numbers of people for heating or transportation purposes for another 15 years. Whether or not ethanol will stake out its share in the new fuel-cell technology is also questionable.

“The technology is here (to make hydrogen from ethanol),” says Lanny Schmidt, a University of Minnesota (U of M) chemical engineer. “The issue is just cost and availability. It's hard to get people to replace petroleum when that system has been in place for 80 years.”

Last year, Schmidt and other U of M researchers announced study results that showed their prototype reactor could produce hydrogen from ethanol more efficiently than refineries could produce it from fossil fuels, such as oil and gas. The prototype reactor is tiny — only 2 ft. high — compared to the gargantuan refineries typically used to produce hydrogen from fossil fuels.

“This process is scalable — you can put it in a house or at a fueling station,” says Lanny Schmidt, a U of M chemical engineer who led the prototype development. “You don't need an enormous system. It can be downsized to consumer needs.”

Schmidt says one of the first uses for the U of M prototype reactor might be to help supply electricity to ethanol plants. “This process uses an ethanol/water mixture,” he says. “You don't have to spend as much money refining ethanol, because you can use ethanol water.”

Only time will tell, however, if ethanol will continue to grow in use, or end up as road kill in the race towards a future hydrogen highway.