Archive for Sunday, July 18, 1999

FUEL-CELL ENERGY RESEARCH GENERATING EXCITEMENT

July 18, 1999

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Move over gas-guzzling combustion engines. Goodbye electric company. Cleaner and more efficient power supplies for vehicles and homes are on the way.

Goodbye electric company. Homes soon could be powered by their own miniature power plants no bigger than dishwashers.

A Kansas University professor and a handful of graduate students in Burt Hall are racing to redefine the way cars and homes are powered. Trung Van Nguyen and his assistants are among a wave of scientists working on revolutionary fuel-cell technology generating excitement rivaling Cold War-era enthusiasm for nuclear power.

Nguyen, an associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, is among those working toward a cost-effective way of turning air and hydrogen into heat and electricity.

He says that dream isn't far from reality. In fact, Nguyen predicts he'll be driving a hydrogen and oxygen powered golf cart on campus by next summer.

Testing in homes

Meanwhile, several companies are producing dishwasher-sized units to generate electricity for homes. As part of a test program, hundreds of the machines soon will be put into residences in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

"The gas goes in and the electricity comes out. Pure, clean electricity," said Nguyen, who's been studying alternative energy sources in the form of batteries and fuel cells for 11 years, the past five at KU.

"I guess it's the change of an era," he said. "To me, nuclear energy is still good energy, but it's the waste we don't have a solution for. The environmental concern is dominant now. We have to worry about our health, the air you're breathing and the water you drink. People are more health conscious and are willing to pay more for something that is environmentally friendly."

While Nguyen's students are focusing on vehicles that will travel coast to coast on a single tank of gas, the uses of fuel-cell technology, microturbines (power plants that can fit in a shed) and wind and solar energy machines are pushing the boundaries of self-sufficiency.

Ideal applications will allow homes and businesses to disconnect from power companies, eliminating the need for power lines, changing the concept of city planning as we know it.

Nguyen said multimillion dollar power plants won't be needed if every home has a hydrogen-powered fuel cell.

"If a city needs to grow, you don't have to build a new power plant," he said. "You won't have to worry about a power failure. If you have a power plant fail, it affects the whole region. With this, I just lose power at my house if it fails."

Auto fuel cells

The sort of machine Nguyen describes is not yet widely available, but a New York company at the forefront of fuel-cell manufacturing next month will begin testing hundreds of units similar to Nguyen's.

Plug Power LLC, based near Albany, predicts its fuel-cell units will meet electricity needs of the average household and will be available for $3,000 to $5,000 within 18 months.

Last fall, Plug Power joined General Electric Power Systems to form GE Fuel Cell Systems to market home units that will achieve 40 percent electrical efficiency, compared to a 15 percent to 18 percent efficiency obtained with the internal combustion engine.

When the excess heat generated by the fuel cell is captured and reused, the efficiency could double. While high costs held back previous mass production efforts, prices will drop as the interest grows and manufacturing methods are refined, experts say.

Major car manufacturers also are working on the fuel-cell technology, and they've unveiled some prototypes, said Nguyen. But the current cost of making a system capable of generating the 50 kilowatts needed to power a car is about $500,000.

It's more likely that a hybrid, joining batteries and fuel cells, will be on the market before a hydrogen-powered car is introduced, he said. The advantage: drivers won't be limited to the amount of "juice" left in the battery, and there is no down time to refuel.

Lynn Watney, director of KU's Energy Research Center, said fuel-cell cars would produce almost zero greenhouse gas emissions, but processing the gasoline from which the hydrogen is extracted would still create some pollution.

"There's some hidden sources of potential pollution, but we won't see it being distributed through the countryside where there are major roads," Watney said. "It's more efficient and less polluting than the combustion engine. I think what we're seeing is some cutting-edge research, but there's a lot more research to take place on this."

Cutting off utilities

Sarah McKinley, executive director of the Distributed Power Coalition of America, said numerous companies are working on various systems that would allow consumers to divest themselves of electric utilities. The technology is readily available, she said, but the United States lacks a hydrogen distribution system like those in place for gasoline and natural gas.

The solution: either have centralized plants that can "harvest" the hydrogen from fossil fuels and then ship the hydrogen in containers similar to propane tanks, or develop a system that will split fuel molecules and filter the hydrogen needed at each separate fuel cell.

The U.S. Department of Energy gave Plug Power $15 million for its research in the fuel-cell field.

"We're in the business of developing energy technologies, and this particular one is a very advanced energy system we think will have a role in meeting the needs of the future," said a spokesman for the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is ckoger@ljworld.com.

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