It’s a few miles down the road, but eventually Minnesota wind turbines could also be producing hydrogen fuel to power your automobile.

The prospect should be exciting both for your pocket book and the environment. For example, you could drink the exhaust of the Honda FCX Clarity because this hydrogen fuel-cell car emits only water.

However, Mike Reese, coordinator of the University of Minnesota Renewable Energy Research and Demonstration Center at West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris, suggests the utilization of hydrogen for transportation fuel on a widespread basis is still a few years away.

“I believe the processes that we are exploring, such as the local production of nitrogen fertilizer from wind energy, will provide a future path enabling the use of hydrogen as a transportation fuel,” Reese said.

In March 2005, a 1.65 megawatt turbine started spinning at the Morris station with the objective of using wind energy to electrolyze water — splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen — plus providing a substantial amount of the electrical needs of the U of M, Morris. The hydrogen will be stored for later use in an internal combustion engine generator or used to produce nitrogen fertilizer in the form of anhydrous ammonia.

It’s this wind-to-hydrogen-to-nitrogen fertilizer concept that is grabbing the attention of the farming community. They are hoping this could be a partial answer to exploding nitrogen fertilizer costs.

Reese said the system at Morris will be designed to produce 10 normal cubic meters of hydrogen per hour. That production from wind turbines could eventually be a source of hydrogen fuel for the automotive world. That depends on the price of gasoline and other alternatives.

“We think hydrogen production costs will decrease with improving technologies. And it’s a logical assumption that higher gas prices will drive even more research in hydrogen production and that should mean lower costs,” Reese said.

While the nature of the infrastructure needed to move hydrogen from wind turbines to service stations is an issue — hydrogen can be moved with trucks or pipelines — Reese said the more important concern is the form in which this hydrogen can best be utilized.

Some believe it is better to send electrical energy to fueling stations and produce hydrogen on-site. Others believe hydrogen should be pressurized and stored in liquid form. A few believe that anhydrous ammonia is the best storage and transport medium.

“Anhydrous ammonia is actually more hydrogen-dense per unit of volume than hydrogen itself,” Reese said.

As hydrogen fuel works its way into the mainstream, the use of conversion kits your hometown mechanic could handle could be a part of the adoption process but changes by auto manufacturers are more likely.

According Reese a California firm, Quantum Technologies, is now converting the Toyota Prius to run on H2. But opinions vary on what type of technology to deploy. For example, BMW prefers a standard engine that can use both hydrogen and gas. Others such as GM and Honda use hydrogen fuel cells to power electric vehicles.

Reese points out a major hurdle is on-board storage of hydrogen. Since hydrogen is the least dense element, it is difficult to store in large quantities. One goal is to be able to store enough hydrogen on board a vehicle to travel 300 miles; so far that has proven a difficult target to achieve.

The Honda Clarity’s 134-horsepower engine is powered by the electricity generated when hydrogen and oxygen combine to form H2O, but it is not yet a zero-emission sedan as Honda suggests. Today most hydrogen fuel is derived from natural gas in a process that releases plenty of carbon dioxide. However the Clarity emits less than half the CO2 released by its gas-guzzling counterparts, according to John Turner of the National Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

The Clarity’s fuel efficiency equivalent of 68 miles per gallon clobbers even the feel-good 48 mpg of the Toyota Prius, and the car can go 270 miles on a $20 tank.

Honda began leasing the Clarity this summer ($600 a month, with limited availability) in Santa Monica, Irvine and Torrance, Calif., three communities with rare access to hydrogen fueling stations. But as Reese suggests, widespread availability is down the road.

Regarding the development of hydrogen into the commercial world, Reese said he sees it initially being used for industrial chemicals such as nitrogen fertilizer. Next is expanded use of electric vehicles; it takes about 20 minutes to convert an electric car to a hydrogen fuel cell power car. This will be a key transition step.

Hydrogen and/or ammonia internal combustion engine generators are on the agenda. So, too, according to Reese, are stationary hydrogen and/or ammonia fuel cells for the production of electrical energy. Then it will be hydrogen and/or ammonia service and short-range vehicles such as forklifts, utility vehicles, delivery vans and buses. Eventually there will be hydrogen and/or ammonia engines in road vehicles; and finally hydrogen or ammonia fuel cells in road vehicles.