Sugar: Future Fuel?

If a new hydrogen fuel cell idea takes off, you might be pumping your SUV full of sugar water.

Imagine pulling up to a Texaco station and pumping your SUV full of sugar water. If a new hydrogen fuel cell idea takes off, someday you might be doing just that.

The idea could solve a fundamental fuel cell problem: To travel any useful distance, a fuel cell car would need to carry hydrogen gas under pressure, requiring a heavy, bulky fuel tank. Some experimental autos solve the problem by carrying liquid fuel and extracting hydrogen from it on the run-a method called onboard reforming.

This new procedure, which produces hydrogen from glucose and related carbohydrates, was developed by chemical engineers James Dumesic, Randy Cortright and Rupali Davda at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A platinum-based catalyst breaks down the carbohydrates into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas. The carbon monoxide reacts with water to produce carbon dioxide and more hydrogen. Everything happens in one container, with the liquid solution under pressure at a relatively low 400?F. That, according to Cortright, makes it well-suited for onboard reforming in a fuel cell car; other reforming methods, he says, have required temperatures four times hotter.

Glucose is a renewable sugar. It is already mass-produced from corn and can also be derived from many kinds of biomass waste. Response from the auto industry is guarded. The process "has a lot of appeal, but also has major challenges," says Tom Moore, head of DaimlerChrysler's Liberty and Technical Affairs Division. He points out that "vast amounts of space" would be required to grow enough plants to fuel America's auto fleet. Still, the auto giant is interested enough in the Wisconsin project to provide some funding for further research.