Backers say corn can be key to future of energy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2002

AP and staff reports


Saturday, February 02, 2002

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MORTON, Minn. – Minnesota farmers learned about new and expanded uses for ethanol at the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) meeting in Morton last week. At the meeting, Freeborn County farmer Gary Pestorious was also elected to serve on the MCGA Board of Directors.

The MCGA is focusing its attention on making corn the biomass fuel of the future. That future could be seen at their annual convention Tuesday and Wednesday. There, ethanol made from corn powered a clean, highly efficient fuel cell, providing the power to keep a propeller blade spinning as part of display on fuel cell technology.

Washington is betting that fuel cells will be powering American cars and trucks in the not too distant future. Many corn growers agree.

&uot;It’s in the future,&uot; said Pestorious.

”This will take over,” said Gerald Tumbleson, a Sherburn corn grower who serves as a director for the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA).

Fuel-cell technology combines pure hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, some heat, and nothing more than water as a byproduct.

It’s not likely that tomorrow’s cars will be powered by pure hydrogen, however. Cars would need to carry large, heavy tanks of compressed gas that, if breached, could explode like the Hindenburg zeppelin. Today’s research is focusing instead on using a hydrogen-rich fuel such as ethanol or methanol, and extracting the hydrogen atoms in a chemical reaction that produces electricity.

The NGCA is supporting research to use ethanol. It offers some important advantages, starting with the economic benefits to farmers and rural communities, said Tumbleson.

Consumers should like the fact that ethanol is much easier on the environment than methanol if spilled, he said. They should also appreciate the fact that ethanol is a renewable energy source. It takes its energy from the corn that captured it from the sun.

”The whole cycle is complete,” he said.

The idea of using fuel-cell technology to power vehicles recently received a ”whole new thrust,” said Duane Adams of Cosmos, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the federal government would help auto makers develop fuel cell-powered cars as part of the Freedom Car program. It replaces research aimed at developing more fuel-efficient versions of the internal combustion engine.

Adams said the government sees fuel-cell technology as the means for reducing air pollution and eliminating our dependence on foreign oil.

Currently, internal combustion engines have a fuel efficiency of about 20 percent, said Tumbleson. Today’s fuel-cell technology already can show fuel efficiency ranging from 40 to 60 percent. It will take a few years before that fuel cell is powering cars and trucks. Researchers must find ways to shrink fuel cells to fit into vehicles.

The current versions are way too large, Adams said. Since the cells work like batteries, researchers must also figure out how fuel cells can provide the sudden burst of power needed for accelerating, added Tumbleson.