If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Chemical Firms in Fuel Firsts

Companies say technologies will lead to less dependence on fossil fuels

February 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 7

Hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity at Dow’s manufacturing site in Freeport, Texas.
Hydrogen fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity at Dow’s manufacturing site in Freeport, Texas.

D ow Chemical and Novozymes last week advanced fuel-cell- and ethanol-based alternative energy projects, both of which are backed by the Department of Energy.

Proclaiming a “key step toward developing a hydrogen economy,” Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham flipped the switch in Freeport, Texas, on a General Motors fuel cell, the first used to generate electricity at Dow Chemical’s giant chemical complex there.

The cell, the same as the one found in GM’s HydroGen3 fuel-cell vehicle, generates 75 kW of electricity, enough for about 60 homes. After four to six months of testing, GM and Dow will install 12 more modules, putting out 1 MW. By 2006, the companies plan some 400 units, producing 35 MW and serving about 2% of the site’s power needs.

Although DOE didn’t provide financial support for the project, Abraham stressed a $1.7 billion government commitment to hydrogen fuels, adding that the government should limit its role to lending support and helping build the environment for advances. “The future will not be constructed in the halls of government,” he said, “but in the labs and facilities of places like General Motors, Dow Chemical, the other auto companies around the world, and other innovators in science and technology.”

For Dow, the fuel cells represent a trial of a technology with which it can use its by-product hydrogen more efficiently than burning it in boilers or selling it to industrial gas companies, said Theo Walthie, Dow business group president of hydrocarbons and energy.

For GM, the project will help advance fuel-cell automobiles, according to Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of R&D and planning. “By taking our fuel-cell technology into the stationary power market, we are learning how to improve fuel-cell efficiency, reliability, and durability,” he said.

Meanwhile, Novozymes said it achieved a 12-fold reduction in the cost of making cellulase, an enzyme needed to convert the cellulose in biomass such as corn stalks into glucose for fermentation to fuel ethanol. The drop is the result of a three-year subcontract with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory based on $14.8 million in DOE funding.

Glenn E. Nedwin, president of Novozymes Biotech, the Davis, Calif., R&D center where most of the work was carried out, said his firm reduced the cost of enzymes required to produce 1 gal of biomass-based ethanol from more than $5.00 to less than 50 cents.

DOE sees biomass-based “biorefineries” as an important future source of renewable energy, but the high price of cellulase has blocked such projects from advancing. Novozymes used biotech techniques like bioinformatics, proteomics, and directed evolution to increase enzyme activity and reduce production costs.

According to Nedwin, Novozymes is working on further cost reductions, targeting 10-cent cellulase in the next two years. At that point, he said, enzymes will no longer hold back commercialization of biomass-based ethanol.

For a streaming video of the ceremony and a closer look at the fuel cell unit installed in Freeport:



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.