Ethanol’s role in bioenergy is nothing new – but the corn-based fuel source continues to be used in new and innovative ways. The latest example comes from the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, where the Army has partnered with private industry to develop a fuel cell that runs off of ethanol. Officials say this new technology could potentially power Army ammunition facilities once it is perfected.
"The fuel cell technology would allow us to power ourselves separate from the electrical grid, which could be subject to storm damage or something like that, so we can continue to operate off local power," Army engineer Brian Meierdiercks says.
The change would be significant – the Department of Defense is the world’s largest consumer of energy.
The fuel cells won’t just run on ethanol, either. Meierdiercks says the Middletown plant will also use excess "energetic waste" (byproducts from producing the ammunition) as a fuel source.
"During the ammunition manufacturing process, there is always an energetic waste stream that is generated, and that has to be taken care of somehow," Meierdiercks says. "The fuel cell technology is actually able to take that energetic waste stream, run it through the fuel cell, and break down the energetic to provide additional power alongside the ethanol."
The fuel cell, developed by nanoMaterials Discovery Corporation, is only a 10-kilowatt prototype at present, Meierdiercks says. If the testing proves successful, he says, the company will start powering up to the 2 megawatts the plant will ultimately need.
"That seems like a big change, but the good news is that all you need to do is stack in more fuel cells," he says. "So if you can prove it out on a single stack, then it will work on all of these stacks, and it’s just a process of piping them all together."
Total savings from electricity production and eliminating energetic waste are estimated to exceed $1 million at the Iowa plant alone.