State University of Campinas

..December 12, 2006

Young company is developing equipment that extracts hydrogen
from ethanol and natural gas; technology is strategic for Brazil

A company that bets on the use of ethanol and natural gas as sources of hydrogen to supply future fuel cells was born at the Hydrogen Laboratory (Laboratório de Hidrogênio) of the State University of Campinas (Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Unicamp)’s Physics Institute (Instituto de Física). HyTron Tecnologia em Hidrogênio (or HyTron Technology in Hydrogen), supported by the Technological Innovation in Small Businesses Program (Programa Inovação Tecnológica em Pequenas Empresas, PIPE) of the State of São Paulo Research Foundation (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, Fapesp), was founded in March of 2005 by a group of 12 researchers, some of them very young, just graduated or finishing their Master’s Degrees or PhDs. The company’s objective is to develop and manufacture ethanol and natural gas reformers – a reformer being the equipment that “reforms” ethanol or natural gas chemically in order to extract hydrogen. A series of reactions take place within the reformer to break up the molecules and separate, among them, the molecules of hydrogen.

Fuel cells, which use hydrogen as fuel, pollute little, are already being tested by large manufacturers for use in automobiles and may be used in places where there’s no electricity. But they still have a disadvantage: it’s very expensive to produce them.

Looking for technologies for obtaining hydrogen from ethanol is strategic for Brazil. Throughout the world there are large investments in research and development for making fuel cells feasible – because they generate clean energy, there’s hope that they may become a significant energy source in the future, especially for ending pollution caused by vehicles. Ethanol is already becoming an alternative fuel; if it could also be used as an energy source in the future, the market perspectives for Brazil’s production will gain longevity and relevance.

”Alcohol is the most important bio-fuel today, but we have to think in the long run, in technologies that could be cheaper and more interesting for the market, such as the case of the fuel cells and of the future hydrogen era,” says agronomy engineer
Heloisa Burnquist, who is a researcher at the Department of Economics, Administration and Sociology (Departamento de Economia, Administração e Sociologia) of the Luiz de Queiroz Agricultural School (Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Esalq), of the University of São Paulo (Universidade de São Paulo, USP). “We can think in technological eras, and currently Brazil has a privileged situation concerning ethanol. We have to continue thinking in ways for adding more advantages to that potential and to new technologies,” she argues.


HyTron is being incubated at the Campinas High Technology Hub Development Company (Companhia de Desenvolvimento do Pólo de Alta Tecnologia de Campinas, Ciatec) and has picked as its focus small customers. So far, the company has made three prototypes, two for ethanol and one for natural gas. One of the ethanol reformers was ordered by Spain’s Air and Space Technical Institute, which should receive it by January of 2007. The other, that also uses ethanol, is being developed in partnership with Petrobras’ Research Center (Centro de Pesquisas, Cenpes) – Petrobras is Brazil’s State oil company. The reformer that uses natural gas has the participation of CPFL, a power company that operates in the State of São Paulo.

The order from Spain came because Unicamp’s Hydrogen Laboratory has had contacts with the Spanish institution’s Renewable Energies Laboratory since 1992. With the Vega project, an automobile that runs on hydrogen developed at Unicamp’s laboratory, both worked together in the question of hydrogen storage. HyTron is not allowed to say what the Spanish are going to do with the reformer they have bought from Brazil because the Air and Space Technical Institute is engaged in military research and thus its activities are related to national security.

The incubated company uses equipment from Unicamp’s Hydrogen Laboratory to carry out the reformers’ prototype’s daily tests. For its research activities, in addition to the support from Fapesp’s  PIPE, it has also received funding from the Brazilian Innovation Agency/Research and Projects Financing (Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos, Finep) and from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, CNPq); and  from the companies associated with the project – a total of approximately US$ 182,000 until December of 2006.

How a reformer works

The operation of ethanol and natural gas reformers are similar, in spite of the fact that they run on different fuels. On the day Unicamp Innovation visited the laboratory, HyTron tested the ethanol reformer Spain has ordered. João Carlos Camargo, an electric engineer with a degree from the Federal University of Santa Maria (Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, UFSM) and one of HyTron’s founding partners, explains the process that takes place within the reformer while showing the equipment being tested. Camargo has a Master’s Degree and a PhD in energy systems planning.

The reformer’s heart is the reform reactor, where a mixture comprised of 50% water and 50% ethanol is heated to a temperature of around 700°C (1,292º F). The high temperature breaks the ethanol molecules; catalysts hasten the process. In this phase is produced a synthesis gas, comprised mostly of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. That gas goes to a sequence of smaller reactors that extract all the hydrogen until only carbon dioxide is left (and it then is let outo into the atmosphere). The hydrogen the reformer produces is applied directly to the fuel cell; there’s only a small low pressure reservoir between both.

The ethanol HyTron is using in the tests has been donated by the Sugar and Alcohol Technology Center (Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira, CTC). “We’re producing reformers to supply fuel cells that generate 5 kilowatts and require 5 cubic meters [176 cubic feet] of hydrogen per hour. In order to produce that amount of hydrogen we need between 3 and 4 liters (between .8 and 1.0 gallon] of ethanol per hour,” says Camargo. The company intends to make reformers for fuel cells of up to 100 kW.

The ethanol reformer runs on ethanol, and the natural gas’ on natural gas – thus part of the ethanol or the gas used in the reform process is burned in order to provide the energy for the reform process proper. Camargo explains that the reform reaction is endothermal, that is, it consumes heat in order to take place. “The amount of gas used to supply heat for the reaction runs from 16% to 20% of the energy available in the ethanol or in the gas,” he continues. “By and large, we could say that 80% of the fuel’s energy is available for hydrogen production,” he says.

Make them small

“The challenge for those devices is making them small. In large refineries there are already equipments such as these, but they’re very large,” explains Camargo. HyTron plans to produce smaller ones for the government and for power companies. Its prototypes are 1.9 meters high by 60 centimeters wide and 1.2 meters deep (6.2 feet by 1.9 feet by 3.9 feet). “In the Unite States companies are testing prototypes in customers’ houses,” he says. Besides the U.S., Japan and Germany are well advanced in the technology of reformers. “The electric power companies in Brazil are interested in those devices because of a new niche in the market, the distributed generation, which has been growing in other countries and is expected to grow here as well,” he adds. In the distributed generation system, natural gas and fuel residues are used to generate electric power close to where it’s consumed. In this model, energy distributors sell or rent small generators to consumers.

The company has one more year left for incubation. That’s why it’s working on its business plan, in which it will define, with figures, its potential market, how much investment it will need to produce reformers, potential investors, where the plant is going to be located, how much it will produce, etc. One of the ideas is to go to the Campinas Technology Park, which is being set up. Camargo says that it’s still very difficult to get resources for the research.

The cost of the final product hasn’t been estimated yet. In order to make a prototype that produces around 10 cubic meters (353 cubic feet) of hydrogen per hour, the costs today amount to around US$ 113,000, according to Camargo.

The challenges

“Brazil doesn’t have a basic development in that area of vital components. We need to import catalysts and some of the materials we need in order to operate in high temperatures, such as special steel and interface components,” lists Camargo. Red tape for importing inputs causes delays in the chronogram of tests. HyTron strives to nationalize its technology as much as possible. “Almost 90% of our technology is Brazilian; many of our solutions were developed ourselves in order to nationalize as many items as possible,” he comments. But the company can’t manufacture internally inputs such as catalysts, which it has to import.

Another critical aspect is to make the company economically viable once it leaves incubation. “The challenge is to make this system feasible to compete with diesel in the future. We’ll need to invest in order to gain scale,” says Camargo. A policy of government purchases, such as the one United States has, would help. “There the government buys so that the company gains production scale and is able to continue in the market,” he points out.

Strategic technology and market on the rise

To become really commercially viable, ethanol reformers depend on the evolution and on the increase in the demand for fuel cells. Doesn’t that make HyTron’s business unfeasible in the short run? “No, because, in the first place, we believe that the technology of fuel cells is here to stay. And, second, we have the possibility of using ethanol and natural gas reformers to extract other inputs, such as acetic acid and carbon monoxide, which have applications in the chemical sector,” answers the physicist and researcher Antônio José Marin Neto, another HyTron partner.