Turnings Plants Into Fuel

In an age of anxiety over oil and climate change, hydrogen has been touted as a potential alternative energy source. The problem has been where to get the hydrogen. Extracting it from fossil fuels is easy but nonrenewable. Taking it from plants is elaborate, time-consuming and expensive. In today's issue of the journal Science, Lanny Schmidt, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, and his team of graduate student announced a new process of extracting hydrogen from soy-bean oil that is as easy as getting it from fossil fuels. The research might one day lead to a car that runs on grass clippings or wood chips. NEWSWEEK's Tony Dokoupil interviewed Schmidt by telephone. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why was it important to discover a faster process for producing hydrogen from plant matter?

Lanny Schmidt: More than just important, faster processes underpin the goal of turning biomass [plant matter] into a renewable fuel source. That's like the holy grail of renewable energy. We ultimately want to be getting fuel and then power out of wood chips, corn stalks, grass clippings, manure and the like. Things that are currently considered waste.

To what extent, does this discovery bring the dream of a "hydrogen economy" closer to being reality?

Well, I don't want to oversell the innovation. It's basic research. We need radically new technologies for renewable fuels to become economically preferable to petroleum products, but this discovery represents a process that could become commercially viable.

How did you do it?

In simplest terms, we sprayed drops of soy oil on a heated ceramic disc, about the size and depth of a quarter. The oil was instantly vaporized, leaving a blend of hydrogen and carbon dioxide. It's a [delicate] reaction, and until now no one had found the conditions needed to sustain it.

Why might it become viable?

It's at least 10 times faster, and hence cheaper, than the predominant method of capturing hydrogen from plant matter, which requires large refineries. The usual method is big and involved. This new method is direct and fast. Plus ... it could support what's called distributed fuel production, where individual counties produce their own energy by reforming biomass that they already have around.

Could this discovery lead to lawn mowers that use grass clippings as fuel?

We're not at a point where a landscaper could reform grass clippings from cutting the front yard to make fuel for cutting the backyard. But it's a possibility. Then again it may be a fantasy. Nobody knows where this is going. It really depends on economics. And I won't go into who controls economics.

Has all the buzz about alternative energy made chemical engineering a sexy career?

Students do seem to love to pursue renewable fuels. They get inspired by it and really want to do the research, much more so than students doing bioresearch, though that's also a buzzword today. But yes, students are idealistic. They see their futures depending on alternative energy sources.

Because energy and related issues like pollution, climate change, and oil resources are so politicized these days, do you think one can speak of "activist engineers" who vote with their research?

Well, I can understand why people would want to use such a term, but, no, I don't think there are. We teach our kids to be honest judges of technology regardless of politics or wishful thinking. We teach them to be "realistic optimists." They don't slant the deck. I will say that I—and I think many of my students—are strong believers in not screwing up the environment. That's a fundamental principal we violate at our own peril. But we also pursue renewables because we believe they can help the economy and the environment at the same time.