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Science and Technology


Exploradio - The future of fuel-cell technology in Ohio
Stationary applications rather than vehicles may be the best hope for the emerging technology
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Fuel Cells convert hydrogen into electricity by combining that fuel with oxygen. The only by-product is water. GM, Toyota, Honda, among other automakers are developing fuel cell cars. A handful of hydrogen filling stations are available, mostly in California.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair, WKSU
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Fuel cells are a ‘new’ technology that’s been ‘just around the corner’ for more than 20 years.  Now advocates say the industry has finally arrived, even while the federal government is scaling back support.

Exploradio - the future of Fuel Cells

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It was 2003 when President George Bush made this claim in his state of the union address –

“The first car driven by a child born today could be powered by Hydrogen and be pollution free.”

Which could happen  -  IF that child lives in California and has very wealthy parents  -  the country’s first pipeline fed hydrogen fueling station opened last week in Torrance, California. 

Matthew Mench is with the Great Lakes Fuel Cell Education Partnership and an engineer with Oakridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He acknowledges the technology may have been a bit oversold –

“I do think the fuel-cell industry has been hurt in the past, like other new technologies, by an overhyped cycle.”

The technology IS exciting, though.  A fuel cell is like a battery. But instead of chemicals being locked in a case, the fuel – usually hydrogen  -- flows through the cell and combines with oxygen to produce electricity and water. 

With no moving parts and zero exhaust, fuel cells are virtually maintenance free.  And they are being used by NASA on space missions, and in fork lifts in factories, and sometimes in cars – Toyota, Honda, & GM have prototypes.


Hydrogen storage in the green economy 
 

But while the Bush administration poured nearly a billion dollars into fuel-cell research, the Obama administration is reducing and refocusing that funding, and eliminating spending on the commercialization of fuel cell cars altogether.  

Still at the recent Ohio Fuel Cell Symposium at Kent State University’s Stark campus industry leaders like Mench say the technological development is on pace.    

“It already is here, the commercialization is underway, the question is how ubiquitous do we see it -  do you have one parked in every garage. That will take some time.” 

“But I do see the regular use of hydrogen based fuel cell and stationary units for your home and other applications are something that over the next 10 – 20 years becomes common place, similar to the way the electric vehicles are starting to be more common.”

While fuel cell vehicles are still somewhere on the horizon, Mench sees immediate uses for fuel cells and hydrogen in reducing green house gases.  He points out a big problem with the nation’s power grid. There’s no way to store electricity.  So any power that’s not used right away is wasted.  He says hydrogen fuel cells could provide storage capacity in the renewable-energy supply chain.

 “One of the ways to do that is whenever there’s excess power from say a wind plant or solar plant and convert it into hydrogen through electrolysis and then the energy is stored in the hydrogen for later use either as combustion or through a fuel cell you can release the energy back as electricity.  There are some inefficiencies involved certainly but you’re looking then as adding storage capacity as we build up this network of renewable resources.”

“So you’re storing sunlight or wind energy as hydrogen?”

“That’s exactly what you’re doing.  You’re taking energy from the sun in terms of solar and it can be converted directly to electricity as needed but if there’s more output than you need at present for the grid you would convert it to hydrogen and use it later.”


Fuel Cells at war, and at home

Hydrogen in one type of fuel for fuel cells, but one local manufacturer is building units for the military that run on other fuels… because, as Benson Lee says –

“You cannot assume that your end-user is going to have access to hydrogen.”

Lee is president of Technology Management in Cleveland. He bought his fuel cell technology from Sohio’s research center back when the oil company was working in the harsh environment of the Alaska pipe-line. 

“The niche that we chose is to be small scale and to run on many different common available fuels, including that are available in extremely rural parts of the world.”

And when Lee says rural, he means remote…like Afghanistan.  The military says electrical generators consume hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel each year – 22 gallons per soldier per day.   Lee has developed a fuel cell unit the size of a 2-drawer file that delivers 1 kW of electricity using JP-8 - the standard military fuel that runs everything from generators to jets.  Lee’s TMI is working with defense contractor Lockheed Martin to test the more efficient fuel cells in combat situations. 

The units can also run on natural gas, which suggests yet another eventual use, reducing household electric bills.  But Lee says the residential fuel cell market in the US has another hurdle, creating customers –

“if you think of who the first customer for the first airplane, the first automobile, the first steam engine …  The classic is Henry Ford’s comment that if I asked what my customers wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Engineers, and entrepreneurs like Benson Lee, say it may be 5 - 10 years before customers see fuel cells in cars or in basements.   And while local research and manufacturing continues with help from Ohio’s Third Frontier program, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is taking the ‘wait and see’ approach to this apparently ever emerging technology.

Related Links & Resources
Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition

NPR on GM's fuel cell car

Stark State's fuel cell center

Hydrogen power wiki page

Listener Comments:

Excellent article. Much more information concerning our politician's handling of our energy issues needs to surface in our national debate.

As for hydrogen cells, they offer a much superior solution for autos than any of the competing technologies.


Posted by: Jerry (Willoughby) on May 16, 2011 3:05AM
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