Researchers seek fuel-cell answers: Universities, companies see long-term potential in alternative power device

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The figure-eight slot-car track in the basement laboratory at IUPUI looks out of place amid the expensive computer equipment surrounding it.

But when research assistant Alan Benedict fumbles with a few wires and the cars come to life, it becomes clear the racetrack is more than just a toy. The miniature cars operate on fuel cells and are part of Purdue University’s exploration into the alternative power source.

Scientists across the country are studying the clean power alternative, stoked by President Bush’s commitment during his 2003 State of the Union address to provide $1.2 billion in federal money for fuel-cell research.

The aim is to reverse America’s growing dependence on foreign oil by developing viable fuel cells that can power automobiles and homes without polluting the air. The United States imports 55 percent of the oil it consumes, a figure expected to grow to 68 percent by 2025, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The challenge is making the technology, which uses hydrogen as its main fuel source, affordable enough to be a viable energy source.

“I’m sure in the future that it’s going to happen, simply because oil is going to run out sooner or later,” said Andrew Hsu, a Purdue professor of mechanical engineering at IUPUI. “It’s just how soon it will happen and what format [fuel cells] will take. That’s the question.”

Many experts in the field predict fuelcell cars will remain rare in the marketplace until at least 2020 due to the daunting technical difficulties hindering mass production.

In the meantime, Hoosier researchers, ranging from university faculty to fledgling entrepreneurs, are busy trying to discover the next technological breakthrough. Many of the studies are supported by federal or state money.

Liquid fuel focus

Purdue’s School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI has received $280,000 from a NASA grant and $573,000 from the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund to research fuel cells. The General Assembly created the fund in 1999 to develop and commercialize advanced technologies. It received $75 million from the Legislature last session for the next two years.

Hsu’s focus is to develop a fuel cell that can run on a liquid gas, such as ethanol or methanol-derived from corn and soybeans-instead of hydrogen, which carries with it a host of obstacles.

Although hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on earth-each molecule of water is composed of two hydrogen atoms-it is costly to produce.

Hydrogen can be produced from the oceans, sun, coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear energy, but harvesting it often creates other environmental and energy problems.

Moreover, hydrogen is a light gas that requires a high-pressure tank that puts motorists at greater risk and is more expensive to transport and store. Hydrogen fuel cells generate power at a cost of greater than $2,000 per kilowatt, compared with $35 per kilowatt for the internal combustion engine, according to Purdue research.

In addition, today’s hydrogen fuel cells have an operating lifetime for cars of fewer than 1,000 hours of driving time, compared with at least 5,000 hours of driving time for a standard gasoline engine.

An automobile using an ethanol or methanol fuel cell would have to be filled up much like a gasoline-powered vehicle, but it could travel 80 miles or so per gallon, more than twice as far as the most efficient gasoline-powered cars, Hsu said. And it would produce many fewer emissions.

“That is why I think that liquid fuel is probably, at least for the near future, the way to go,” he said.

Replacing batteries

At the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, the aim is not on fuel cells for transportation uses but on smaller, stationary applications.

The university has received a total of $4 million from the U.S. Army and the 21st Century Fund to develop fuel cells that could replace standard batteries. Fuel cells outlast heavier batteries, which would benefit the military during operations when troops are in the field for extended periods, said Paul McGinn, a professor in Notre Dame’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department.

Soldiers carry about 95 pounds of supplies. But when they sometimes need more, they might take less food so they can carry enough batteries, McGinn said.

“For the consumer, the price of fuel cells is still high and not competitive with batteries,” he said. “But for the military, [it] would welcome the extra cost if [it] got enhanced performance, like extended missions.”

Notre Dame is collaborating on its fuelcell research with NuVant Systems, a fuelcell development company that is in the process of moving from Chicago to a Crown Point incubator. The collaboration began when the university bought instruments from NuVant, such as the membrane electrode assembly-the “heart” of the fuel cell.

Eugene Smotkin founded NuVant in 1999 and chose to move the venture after learning of incentives Indiana offers hightech firms. For instance, the state matches the amount, normally $100,000, that companies receive through the federal Small Business Innovation Research Program.

The incubator at the Purdue Technology Center at Crown Point also attracted Smotkin. At first blush, he said, the facility’s lease rates seemed exorbitant, until he learned the amount included a statefunded buildout of the laboratory. Smotkin estimated the cost of the 2,000-square-foot lab to be $250,000.

NuVant has six employees and limited revenue that Smotkin declined to divulge. But he is optimistic his company can reach the $10 million mark within three years. Helping the cause is a contract NuVant landed in June with Boston-based Cabot Corp. to supply it with the company’s instruments.

“Indiana has a very strong incentive program, so we decided to make our home here,” Smotkin said. “We’re highly motivated to grow and hire more people.”

Research leaders

While Indiana might offer attractive incentives that could lead to fuel-cell development, it lags far behind neighbors Ohio and Michigan. The two Midwestern states-along with California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida and Texas-are considered leaders in the fuel-cell field, said Jack Brouwer, associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center in Irvine, Calif.

In April 2002, Michigan unveiled its NextEnergy Project, which was expected to cost $50 million over three to five years. The plan includes a 700-acre, tax-free research zone near Ann Arbor designed to attract alternative-energy companies from around the world.

About the same time, Ohio announced its Third Frontier Project-a 10-year, $1.6 billion proposal to promote high-tech research. The fuel-cell portion includes a three-year, $100 million plan to make the state a national leader in developing the technology.

In the private sector, corporations with an Indiana presence conducting fuel-cell research include locally based Allison Transmission, London firm Rolls-Royce Corp., Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co. and Delco Remy International Inc. in Anderson. A smaller venture, Swift Enterprises Ltd. at Purdue’s research park at West Lafayette, is devoted to fuel-cell development.

Generating electricity

Although other states may be allocating more money than Indiana toward fuel-cell research, a few projects in the state have garnered national attention. Both involve using fuel cells to generate electricity without coal combustion.

At the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southern Indiana, Cincinnatibased Cinergy Corp., Crane and the Office of Naval Research collaborated in 1995 to develop a prototype 250-kilowatt proton exchange membrane fuel-cell power plant.

The power plant was the first “large” PEM stationary fuel cell ever field-tested and it provided power to portions of the Power Systems Division facilities at the Crane naval base. The pilot project ended three years ago.

Also in 1995, the Wabash River Coal Gasification Project got under way near Terre Haute. The Department of Energy funded half the plant’s $417 million cost as part of a demonstration project in which fuel-cell technology is used strictly on a commercial basis.

In 2002, the world’s first fuel cell linked to a clean-coal technology power plant was installed there to generate electricity without coal combustion. The plant can manufacture gas at a fraction of the cost of power generated by natural gas and is more environmentally friendly. The technology is cheaper than the scrubbers installed on coal plants and is generally considered more effective at reducing harmful emissions.

Projects such as those are what Brouwer at the National Fuel Cell Research Center views as the start of a trend toward renewable alternative power sources.

“With the investment and significant advances that are being made,” he said, “I think most definitely we’ll make fuel cells a product that will affect our energy conversion and meet our energy demands in the future.”

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