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Fundraising ramps up to continue development of direct-ethanol fuel cells for vehicles

Iowa Corn, the advocacy organization for Iowa corn growers, is leading a drive to raise funds to continue advancing technology in order to help get direct-ethanol fuel cells, or DEFC, to the point where they can realistically use corn products to turn from ethanol to electricity and then fuel cells so they can be marketable in vehicles.

Corn waits
A 2017 file photo shows an ear of corn in a field near Mitchell.
Mitchell Republic file photo
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BROOKINGS, S.D. — If corn industry advocates get their wish, the future of ethanol powering vehicle fuel cells will continue to advance in the years to come.

Iowa Corn, the advocacy organization for Iowa corn growers, is leading a drive to raise funds to continue advancing technology to help get direct-ethanol fuel cells, or DEFC, to the point where they can realistically use corn products to turn from ethanol to electricity and then fuel cells so they can be marketable in vehicles.

In a DEFC, ethanol is used as a fuel to generate electricity rather than heat generated by combustion as in an engine. As a bonus, the approach requires no recharging time like is needed for battery-based electric vehicles, meaning consumers will have more options for alternatives to fossil fuels.

Alex Buck, Iowa Corn’s industrial innovation manager, spoke to the board of directors for the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council about the plan during a meeting on the South Dakota State University campus on Aug. 8.

Buck was giving the pitch to both North Dakota and South Dakota organizations, seeking to raise roughly $600,000 to fund additional multi-year research at the University of Central Florida and Oregon State University to further develop a direct ethanol fuel cell.

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Corn ethanol fuel cell Alex Buck.jpg
Alex Buck, Iowa Corn’s industrial innovation manager, spoke to the board of directors for the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council during a meeting on the South Dakota State University campus on Aug. 8, 2022 in Brookings.
Marcus Traxler / Mitchell Republic

Buck said the primary goals of the research are to develop ways to grind more corn, generating revenue, leveraging funds and identify investment opportunities for growers. He said they’re trying to help get the idea through the innovation “valley of death” that impacts good business ideas, which can struggle to get past the level of research to build business scale and commercial adoption. Nissan, for example, has been the most notable automaker to try to develop a DEFC with limited success.

In addition to the Dakotas, the multi-state corn growers coalition being sought includes the Midwest states of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska and Kansas.

“It is a more active use of ethanol,” Buck said, of the technology.

In late 2021, university-led research worked on developing a catalyst that solves three key problems commonly associated with the technology, those being low efficiency, cost, and toxicity of the chemical reactions inside the cells.

According to research published in Nature Energy, collaborators at OSU and UCF, plus the University of Pittsburgh found that putting fluorine atoms into palladium-nitrogen-carbon catalysts had a number of positive effects — including keeping the power-dense cells stable for nearly 6,000 hours.

“Combustion engines produce enormous amounts of carbon dioxide,” said Feng, associate professor of chemical engineering, in a story for the OSU website. “To achieve carbon-neutral and zero-carbon-emissions goals, alternative energy conversion devices using the fuel from renewable and sustainable sources are urgently needed. Direct-ethanol fuel cells can potentially replace gasoline- and diesel-based energy conversion systems as power sources.”

Feng and collaborators are in the process of soliciting funding to develop prototypes of DEFC units for portable devices and vehicles.

“If this is successful, we can deliver a device for commercialization in five years,” he said. “With more industrial collaborators, the DEFC vehicle can be implemented in 10 years, hopefully.”

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From left, Joseph Pedersen, Zhenxing Feng, Morgen Messer perform lab work at the Oregon State University College of Engineering.
Oregon State University photo

Yang Yang, a professor in the NanoScience Technology Center at UCF, said the development of ethanol fuel cells has been limited by sluggish internal reactions that hurt performance. Researchers are overcoming this problem by adding the element fluorine to the palladium-nitrogen-carbon catalysts that spur electrical production in the fuel cell.

“Our lab has continued to work on fluorine-doped materials for energy and sustainability,” Yang told the UCF website. “We spent more than two years on this project, we never stop because we believe this invention will change the world.”

The small-scale collegiate research results showed the catalyst addressed electrode concerns, with high carbon dioxide conversion, no detectable acetic acid issues and the potential to use low levels of precious metals in catalysts, which is important for economics.

Buck and corn groups are seeking to raise about $3.5 million to fund five more years of research and for the technology to support the commercialization of the project, with South Dakota's expected share for the project to be between $35,000 and $45,000 over the five years. The item was a discussion topic for the South Dakota corn groups, with no final decision on a funding committment made.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURECORN
Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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