A new hydrogen-based economy is likely to use ethanol as an essential feedstock. According to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), a hydrogen-from-ethanol energy system has the potential to shrink the nation's dependence on foreign oil, minimize pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and boost rural economies.

“Ethanol is so widely distributed now that it's an ideal candidate to produce and dispense hydrogen for fuel,” says William Lueckel, a fuel cell technology consultant for RFA. “With more than 1,500 registered U.S. terminals, ethanol provides an instant infrastructure for the hydrogen economy.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) calls hydrogen “key” to its “long-term energy and environmental security strategy.” In 2003, President Bush announced a $1.2 billion Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (HFI) to develop affordable hydrogen-powered vehicles and commercially viable fuel cells that run on hydrogen. For the year 2007, President Bush requested $289 million in funding for the HFI.

Despite these developments, hydrogen is still being made predominately from fossil fuels, says Robert Gray, president and CEO, HyRadix Inc., a Chicago company that manufactures reformers to produce hydrogen. “Hydrogen is typically produced from natural gas, but we consider this a transitional fuel as we move towards more green fuels like ethanol,” says Gray. “As a country, we need to use more of our indigenous fuel resources and rely less on imports. Hydrogen is becoming an important fuel because it burns clean and can be produced from renewable fuels, including ethanol.”

Compared to renewable fuels, however, hydrogen is difficult to ship and distribute at “filling stations” in the way petroleum products are dispensed today, says Lueckel. “It's expensive and difficult to move hydrogen around, due to safety and permitting issues,” he adds. “Unlike hydrogen, ethanol is easily moved by train, truck or ship.”

Fueling stations are already being developed that can use ethanol to produce and dispense hydrogen on site, says Daniel LeFevers, State and Municipal Project Development Director, Gas Technology Institute (GTI), Des Plaines, IL. “Ethanol is simple to purify into hydrogen compared to gasoline or diesel fuel,” he says. “Where natural gas is not available in a pipeline, you'd want to use ethanol (to produce hydrogen) instead. As a liquid fuel, ethanol is easier to distribute and store than natural gas in areas where natural gas service is unavailable.”

Engines have already been modified to run on compressed hydrogen, which could either be made from natural gas or ethanol, says LeFevers. In fact, GTI is currently pursuing work with the City of Chicago to supply compressed hydrogen made from ethanol to fuel buses, he adds. These buses would have internal combustion engines that are modified to run on compressed hydrogen.

GTI can currently produce hydrogen from natural gas with a steam methane reformer. LeFevers says the company has demonstrated the ability to use that same process to produce hydrogen from ethanol.

HyRadix also hopes to supply the City of Chicago with hydrogen for bus-fleet fuel, says Gray. “By the spring of 2007, we should have our first commercial reformer fabricated and ready to produce hydrogen fuel from ethanol.”

Ethanol will likely be hitched to hydrogen production in ways that could greatly reduce future fossil fuel use, says Lueckel. “We're trying to get demonstration projects in place and funded to show that the technology is feasible,” he adds. “The only question now is how soon it will become operational on a wide scale.”