Brewing Biohydrogen from Beer, Food Waste

With all the recent news about sustainable biofuel projects – including huge investments by some of our petroleum giants into non-food ethanol – it was interesting to note last month’s unique side-step by a Japanese brewery and a South American oil company. No, they won’t make beer you can either drink or pour in your gas tank. But Sapporo Breweries Ltd. and Brazil’s state-run oil producer, Petrobras, will execute a trial – beginning as early as September – to make hydrogen gas from sugar cane waste and other farm leftovers. They will use a technology developed by Sapporo to make “biohydrogen” from food waste with fermentation methods derived from brewing beer.

Sapporo is among a handful of beer makers on this cutting edge. The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been fermenting hydrogen for fuel cells to reduce energy costs at its Chico, CA, brewery since 2005, and Foster’s Beer has been doing the same at a site in Australia since 2007. (Molson Coors Brewing Co., on the other hand, has produced ethanol from its beer waste since 2005 – and even provided 40,000 gallons for vehicles at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver!)

Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, but it does not exist by itself in the earth’s ecosystem and therefore must be separated from its “feedstocks” – which chiefly have been natural gas, coal and water. Thermal and electrochemical separations have been used traditionally to accomplish this in industrial production, including as a byproduct from nuclear reactors in nations that have them, like France. In the U.S., 95% of hydrogen is derived thermally from natural gas, according to the National Hydrogen Association (NHA).

The biological separation of hydrogen remains largely in the experimental and development stages – or, as some wags have noted in recent years, on the “back burner” — because of more immediately promising production breakthroughs in other biofuels like ethanol. The “hydrogen economy” touted by many environmentalists a decade ago simply has not happened because the energy used to extract the element continues to exceed the energy produced by it as a fuel.

But futurists continue to believe, and for good reason – because hydrogen as a fuel produces zero emissions, other than pure water. You’re right if you say our roads might get a little icy in below-freezing temperatures if we all drive hydrogen cars, but let’s cross (or sand) that bridge if we ever get to it!

The Sapporo-Petrobras biomass experiment is claimed by some in the industry to be the first of its kind, most likely because its goal is to sell the hydrogen to other users. But there are other biological efforts afoot to produce this emission-free fuel of the future (Or, of the past! It should be noted that the first internal combustion engine, invented in 1807, ran on hydrogen gas!)

Here are a few:

Welch’s Bottling Plant in Erie, PA, is experimenting with the use of bacteria in wastewater from its grape vats to produce hydrogen as a fuel to generate electricity at the facility. An “enzyme cocktail” is being used by researchers at Virginia Tech University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Georgia to produce hydrogen from cellulose and woodchips or switchgrass. The Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla, working with the U.S. Department of Transportation, has been successful in separating hydrogen from a “crude ethanol beer” they make from bio-based feedstock. And very recently, the use of green algae to produce clean-burning hydrogen was taken to new levels by scientists at the Carnegie Institution, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Colorado School of Mines.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the investment into hydrogen by the State of South Carolina, which has pumped over $40 million in tax dollars into the Columbia, SC, area to establish a national base for fuel cell technology. The result is Engenuity, a public-private group that has set up several demonstration projects – including a hydrogen-powered baseball scoreboard at the University of South Carolina. The city also just hosted the NHA’s annual conference, which brought 1,000 hydrogen researchers, manufacturers and government officials to town.

Auto makers once touted hydrogen as the fuel of the future, with prototypes on the road since 1994. Honda currently has 200 of its latest effort – the fuel-cell FCX Clarity – on lease in California. With only six fueling stations in operation there, they won’t be driving very far, so don’t strain your neck to spot one in New Jersey. Instead, be on the lookout for the latest hybrid/electric prototype, today’s “car of the future” that has worldwide consensus to occupy center stage for the immediate future.

Hydrogen eventually may become the replacement for petroleum – but it will be decades at the earliest. For now, we listen to those who say it’s like the computer business was in 1945. Only time will tell. There are those others who mention the Hindenburg.

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