Against odds, AlGalCo pursues 'Holy Grail' of power cells

February 25, 2008

A small West Lafayette technology startup has quietly unveiled a product that might, just might, change the world.

At the TechAdvantage Conference and Expo in Anaheim, Calif., on Feb. 20, Kurt Koehler, CEO, co-founder (and, for the moment, sole employee) of AlGalCo LLC, showed off a pre-production hydrogen-powered emergency generator. The innocuous-looking, roughly 60-pound system was built to serve an equally innocuous niche of the power generation industry--providing backup current to homebound, medically fragile people when their electrical service fails.

At least that's the initial application. Koehler believes the technology behind the device could someday become as ubiquitous, and find as many applications, as the internal combustion engine.

What makes AlGalCo's offering different from diesel, gasoline and propane-powered emergency generators is its choice of fuel, and the way it obtains it. The unit features a container filled with pellets made of a special aluminum-gallium alloy. Immersing them in ordinary tap water causes a chemical reaction that produces pure hydrogen--enough to generate one kilowatt of power for five hours. And if the unit containing the alloy is replaced regularly, it can generate power indefinitely.

Koehler's product offers several key advantages over conventional generators. Because the unit produces no harmful exhaust vapors (its only byproduct is water), it can operate right in a user's room. The company plans to roll out the production version in three to four months. The unit will cost perhaps 50 percent more than a conventional, gasoline-powered model such as the 1-kilowatt EU 1000i by Honda, list priced at $789.95.

"It will be a little more expensive than traditional generators," Koehler said. "However, internal combustion engines have been around since 1884 and this has been around for a couple of months. But it's not going to be 10 times more expensive. It's going to be fairly close."

The reason the 50-year-old entrepreneur keeps mentioning engines is because he thinks the technology, honed at Purdue University, could be scaled up for use in automobiles, ushering in the much-talked-about-but-so-far-impractical hydrogen economy, in which vehicles are powered either by engines that burn the gas or by fuel cells that turn it into electricity.

Both schemes look good on paper, yet are rife with show-stopping problems. At present, there's no practical, environmentally benign, energy-efficient way to produce large quantities of hydrogen; no infrastructure of pipelines, tanker trucks and filling stations to get it to consumers; and no cost-effective, mass-produced vehicles to burn it. Add the fact that highly volatile hydrogen (as demonstrated by the Hindenberg blimp disaster) can be tricky to store and move, and you have a seemingly insurmountable technical logjam.

Circumventing the problem

Koehler and his cohorts can sound so optimistic because their process circumvents the problem of hydrogen transportation by creating it on the spot. The only thing that needs to be poured into the generator is water, from which hydrogen is extracted. The technique was developed (by accident) in 1967 by Jerry Woodall, currently a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue. At the time, he was doing semiconductor research at IBM. One day, he was washing out a small crucible in which he'd mixed aluminum and gallium, when something unusual happened.

"When I added water to clean this thing out, there was a poof of hydrogen coming off," he recalled. "I was very surprised by that. And then I went back to my office and figured out what was going on."

What happened was this: Common aluminum interacts strongly with water, pulling H2O molecules apart and producing hydrogen. The reason the typical aluminum pot doesn't create a cloud of hydrogen every time it's filled with water is because the metal quickly forms an insulating layer of non-reactive aluminum oxide, preventing further contact. However, the gallium Woodall mixed with his aluminum somehow inhibited the oxidation process and kept the hydrogen flowing.

Woodall toyed with the concept off and on for decades. But it wasn't until he met Koehler, an entrepreneur who has started three other energy-related businesses, that he earnestly tackled the problems of making it commercially viable. During their initial meeting in 2005, Koehler starting talking about the difficulty of finding a viable hydrogen supply for fuel-cell vehicles, and Woodall stated offhandedly that he knew how to make as much as necessary, on the spot.

Koehler, only half-jokingly, called him a liar. The professor proved his assertion with a quick demonstration, and a business relationship was born. Koehler, an Indiana University graduate, joined a team of Purdue professors in honing the technique.

"It took them a couple of years to develop an alloy that we could commercialize," he said.

The Purdue Research Foundation holds the primary patent for the new, improved process, but AlGalCo (short for Aluminum Gallium Co.) holds the exclusive license to commercialize it. About six months ago, they engaged a Kentucky company to manufacture the aluminum-gallium pellets in small batches, and found other contractors to build the prototype generator.

Koehler and his associates want to carve out a profitable niche for the 1-kilowatt units, then offer models that produce 5 or 10 kilowatts--enough to provide emergency power for an entire house.

"I think the demand for that is going to be pretty substantial," he said. "I've had people that have already given me their MasterCard numbers, trying to buy one. I don't have one yet, but they want me to ship it to them."

Grand plans

Potential buyers can't peruse the company's Web page, because AlGalCo doesn't yet have one. Koehler has so far financed the startup out of his own pocket, but will seek outside capital once manufacturing begins. He wants to keep a low profile while he and his associates quietly work out the technological kinks and start generating cash flow. But further down the road, he has grander--or perhaps, more grandiose--plans.

"What I want to do in five years is to be in a position where we can go public and raise a substantial amount of money, $100 million or whatever, and put this thing in cars and trucks," he said.

He'll need every minute of that time to iron out the engineering challenges. Today, dozens of companies, from startups to Ford and Honda, are attempting to develop commercially viable forms of fuel-cell technology. Annual investment in fuel-cell research tops $1 billion. And no wonder. New York-based J.P. Morgan Securities estimates the consumer market for fuel cells could reach $100 billion by 2020.

"The Holy Grail of the fuel-cell market is the high-temperature fuel cell, which is the enabling technology for the automobile market that could ultimately replace the combustion engine," Dallas-based Stonegate Securities said in a research report.

AlGalCo's chief advantage--admittedly a huge one--is that its vehicles wouldn't have to rely on a network of yet-to-be-created hydrogen filling stations. But there's a catch. Its cars would have to replace their store of aluminum-gallium pellets regularly. Woodall thinks a medium-size car would need a 350-pound load to make a 350-mile trip. That works out to roughly a pound of metal per mile--metal that would then have to be regularly replaced.

Fortunately, aluminum is fairly cheap (about $1 per pound) and easy to obtain. And the alloy pellets, once spent, can be recycled and reused. The problem is that some experts believe the energy necessary to create fresh fuel will negate whatever energy the pellets create. Woodall, however, believes this problem can be solved by using cheap, pollution-free, solar, wind or nuclear power in the recycling process.

Given these challenges, it's no surprise that some energy experts look askance at a small Indiana firm's chances for success. For instance, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an amply funded consortium committed to putting practical hydrogen-powered cars on Golden State freeways sometime in the next decade, believes the work will require the resources of numerous multinationals, phenomenally deep pockets, and lots of time.

"One of the challenges of commercialization is that this is a new technology with very, very high costs," said CFCP spokesman Roy Kim. "Right now, we're doing testing programs and collecting real world data, so that we can get a good idea of what this will look like when it comes to the commercial market, which we envision as the 2012 or 2015 time frame."

That's roughly when Koehler hopes to see his machines hit the road. So while the two groups are miles apart in resources and philosophies, they're keeping to the same timetable.

"I figure it's going to take me five years of trial and error and figuring out what people will accept and won't accept," he said. "To put this in a car and be able to go to a gas station and swap these aluminum units in and out, that's going to take some doing. I want to be in a position in five years where I have the resources and money to attack that kind of market."

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