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Fuel Cell Boost From Ethanol Push

GM R&D Chief Sees Fuel Cell Boost From Ethanol Push

MUNICH - The United States' sudden love affair with ethanol fuel will boost prospects for embracing hydrogen-powered fuel cells later, General Motors' research and development chief Lawrence Burns said on Wednesday.
Encouraging farmers to grow corn or other grains that can be converted into clean-burning, renewable fuel creates a system that can he readily applied to generating hydrogen as well, he told Reuters on the sidelines of an auto industry conference.

"Even some of the initial steps in the processing of the biomass -- whether to make it hydrogen or ethanol -- will be one and the same, so it is an important step toward an alternative pathway for energy," he said.

"And it allows us to use our existing internal combustion engines as we transition to hydrogen in the future."

Fuel cells work by using the chemical interaction of hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity that powers a vehicle while emitting only water. But even proponents acknowledge that costs have to fall drastically before they become practical.

Ethanol, on the other hand, is produced in North America mainly from corn, but can be made from virtually any starch feed stock, including sugar cane, wheat or barley.

Some analysts and US lawmakers increasingly see it as a viable alternative to American dependence on foreign oil.

Sceptics question if ethanol's costs outweigh its rewards and cite concerns that corn may be used to make fuel at the expense of food.

The US government has projected that by next year more than 2 billion bushels of corn will be used to produce ethanol, roughly equal to the amount of corn that is exported, and about 20 percent of the annual US corn crop.

Burns played down the concerns.

"The dollars (spent on ethanol) stay in the United States rather than being spent to buy someone else's petroleum. Those jobs and that balance of trade are an important part going forward," he said.

"We actually have farmers that are paid not to grow things, so this will be a chance to take some of that land and turn it into an important solution for our energy needs. We see it as a synergistic step with hydrogen and fuel cells. It is a matter of time."

Already 1.9 million GM vehicles that can use ethanol are on US roads, with 400,000 more coming out every year, he said. Rivals Ford Motor Co and DaimlerChrysler AG have lots of these vehicles as well.