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Home Grown Hydrogen

Minnesota has no coal or oil deposits, but someday the state could produce plenty of homegrown hydrogen from its abundant agricultural products.

Renewable hydrogen offers the promise of efficient, pollution-free domestic fuel for electricity, heat and transportation. The most plentiful element on earth, hydrogen can be harvested from many renewable materials, including plant biomass, food processing waste, ethanol, manure and wind.

Advocates say a renewable-hydrogen industry could spur rural economic growth, cut air pollution and boost energy security by reducing the nation’s use of imported oil. With all its advantages, many believe hydrogen and hydrogen-powered fuel cells will become the energy of choice in the not-so-distant future.

Minnesota is now taking the first steps toward this hydrogen future. Last year, the Legislature set a new energy goal, which calls for the state “to move to hydrogen as an increasing source of energy for its electric power, heating and transportation needs.”

To advance this goal, the Legislature has called for pilot projects to demonstrate hydrogen and fuel cell technology. In addition, the Legislature authorized $20 million over the next five years for renewable energy research at the University of Minnesota. At AURI, the newly-established Center for Producer-Owned Energy in Marshall, Minn., will assist farmers who want to manufacture renewable fuels.

These public efforts complement private investments by Minnesota’s emerging fuel cell industry. Entegris, a $248-million high-tech materials company based in Chaska, is an example. In 2002, Entegris started a fuel cell division. Now the company is pouring substantial resources into new materials and manufacturing methods for bipolar plates and other fuel cell components, says John Goodman, head of fuel cell operations. “We’re working with portable, stationary and transportation fuel cell makers” worldwide, he says.

A national push

Minnesota’s efforts are part of a larger national policy aimed at encouraging a shift to hydrogen energy.

The Department of Energy in 2002 laid out a National Hydrogen Energy Roadmap, which charts a 50-year plan for developing electricity and transportation systems fueled by domestically-made hydrogen. President George W. Bush last year set ambitious new goals to hasten the development of pollution-free fuel cell vehicles. At least 18 states now have public initiatives to help commercialize fuel cells, according to Rolf Nordstrom, director of the Upper Midwest Hydrogen Initiative, an industry-led policy group.

Security, clean air spur interest

What’s driving this interest in hydrogen? Security concerns, for one, Nordstrom says. The U.S. imports half its oil supply – 8 million barrels a day, much of it from politically-troubled regions of the globe. “Since September 11, energy security has become synonymous with national security,” Nordstrom says. “There’s a huge interest in improving our energy independence.”

Adding impetus is the prospect of one day running out of oil, he says. When world oil production begins to decline – and some say that could happen as early as 2040 – cheap oil is finished, Nordstrom says. Moving to hydrogen would allow the country to replace foreign oil with diverse, domestic fuels.

Air pollution and greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are also spurring strong interest in hydrogen, along with new California laws that restrict auto emissions. Rapid advances in fuel cell technology and manufacturing are adding to the momentum, Nordstrom says.

Minnesota’s opportunity

As hydrogen interest heats up, Minnesota has a chance to become a national leader in renewable hydrogen production.

“We don’t have coal or oil,” says Ken Brown of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance, “but we’re rich in agricultural products. We’re strong in wind, and we’re strong in biomass.” These assets could make the state “a player in this emerging hydrogen economy,” he says.

A Minnesota hydrogen interest group, which has been meeting for over a year, agrees. The Minnesota Renewable Hydrogen Initiative, a partnership of industry, university, government and nonprofit organizations, has set a goal of becoming a national leader in renewable hydrogen production and use by 2010.

It’s an ambitious goal, says Linda Limback, research coordinator for the State Energy Office, who helped organize the group. “We can easily make hydrogen from fossil fuels,” she says. But the renewables technology, “hasn’t reached the marketplace.”

Making hydrogen from biomass gasification is more than twice as costly as making hydrogen from natural gas, according to a 2003 estimate from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and making hydrogen from wind-powered electrolysis is even more expensive. But hydrogen generation costs are expected to come down as biorefining and wind-energy technologies advance, Limback says.

That’s where the University of Minnesota’s new Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment comes in. IREE will sponsor basic and applied research on fuel cells, biorefining, biocatalysis and hydrogen production, storage and transportation. The program was founded last year with $10 million from the state’s Renewable Development Fund, plus another $10 million from Xcel Energy’s Conservation Improvement Program. Director Richard Hemmingsen expects IREE to attract significant federal research dollars to the state, too.

Fueling economic development

Combining the University’s expertise with Minnesota’s vast natural resources will pay big rewards for the state down the road, Hemmingsen says. “We grow a lot here and we’re very good at it. The potential, especially for rural economic development, is substantial.”

Among the benefits of a hydrogen industry for Minnesota: a cleaner environment, the result of using “this year’s photosynthesis” instead of the sequestered hydrocarbons in fossil fuels, Hemmingsen says. Energy independence is another benefit. Minnesota might even become an energy exporter, a “regional Saudi Arabia of hydrogen,” as Entegris’ Goodman puts it.

In rural Minnesota, a hydrogen industry could mean new processing plants, energy parks and jobs, says Michael Sparby, AURI project development director. Like ethanol, hydrogen would be made locally, close to raw material supply. And the same model that has worked for Minnesota’s cooperative ethanol plants could also work for farmers who want to manufacture hydrogen, he adds.

Corn growers are especially interested in the opportunities hydrogen might provide for farmers, says Yvonne Simon, Minnesota Corn Growers executive director. “Energy is one of our largest focuses.”

In the future, “we’ll see our region evolve into an energy-producing region,” Goodman predicts. “Not in five years or 10 years. It will take many decades.” But now is the time to set the goal, he says.

“The ultimate will be when we’re using renewable resources to make hydrogen to power fuel cells. That’s what we are working to leave as a legacy for future generations.”

The Minnesota Department of Commerce has a new report on hydrogen opportunities in Minnesota. “The Hydrogen Potential: Hydrogen Technology and Minnesota Opportunities” is available at