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A new way to make hydrogen directly from biomass, such as soy oil, reported in the current issue of Science, could cut the cost of electricity production using various cheap fuels.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed a catalytic method for producing hydrogen from fuels such soy oil and even a mixture of glucose and water. The hydrogen could be used in solid-oxide fuel cells, which now run on hydrogen obtained from fossil-fuel sources such as natural gas, to generate electricity. Further, by adjusting the amount of oxygen injected along with the soy oil or sugar water, the method can be adapted to make synthesis gas, a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be burned as fuel or converted into synthetic gasoline. The method can also produce chemical feedstocks, such as olefins, which can be made into plastics.

Although the results are preliminary, the new catalysis process represents a fundamentally new way to directly use soy oil and other cheap biomass as fuels; such biomass now needs to be converted into biodiesel or ethanol in order to be used as fuels. “Generally, people have steered clear of nonvolatile liquids–materials that you cannot vaporize,” since these typically produce a carbon residue that stops the process of producing hydrogen, says Ted Krause, head of the basic and applied research department at Argonne National Laboratory, in Argonne, IL. By eliminating the need to process soy oil and sugar water to make volatile fuels such as ethanol, the new method “opens up the number of available biomaterial feedstocks,” he says.


The process begins when the researchers spray fine droplets of soy oil or sugar water onto a super-hot catalyst made of small amounts of cerium and rhodium. The rapid heating combined with catalyst-assisted reactions prevents the formation of carbon sludge that would otherwise deactivate the catalyst. And the reactions produce heat, keeping the catalyst hot enough to continue the reaction. As a result, although fossil fuels are used initially to bring the catalysts up to the 800 °C working temperature, no fossil fuels are needed to continue the process. “One of the virtues of our process is it requires no external process heat–it drives itself,” says chemical-engineering and materials-science professor Lanny Schmidt, who led the research.

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