Energy Space Age Style: Fuel Cells Catching On Big, Slowly but Surely

INDIANA – Quietly, and without burning polluting fuels, a large, beige box at the Crane Naval Warfare Center lab is generating enough electricity to power about 80 homes.
At the opposite end of the state, a house is being built in the Sand Creek subdivision of Chesterton using the same technology, but on a smaller scale.
Utility officials and scientists believe these fuel cells — essentially batteries that don’t run down for as long as a decade — are on the verge of revolutionizing electric power across the world.


INDIANA – Quietly, and without burning polluting fuels, a large, beige box at the Crane Naval Warfare Center lab is generating enough electricity to power about 80 homes.
At the opposite end of the state, a house is being built in the Sand Creek subdivision of Chesterton using the same technology, but on a smaller scale.
Utility officials and scientists believe these fuel cells — essentially batteries that don’t run down for as long as a decade — are on the verge of revolutionizing electric power across the world.

These devices, now experimental, are as few as 18 months away from mass production, experts say.

The developing technology may replace coal-fired power plants that annually pump about 625 million pounds of pollutants into Indiana skies. And if the promise of fuel cells is realized, massive power plants and power failures from downed utility poles and lines could be history.

Homeowners soon might own their very own mini-power plant, dwarfed to the size of an outside air conditioner. Initially, the $5,000 cost still will be more expensive than buying electricity — until increasing demand reduces costs.

But larger fuel cell units such as the one at Crane, a military research center in southwest Indiana, may power office buildings, Navy ships or housing developments in three to five years, its engineers predict.

The $3.5 million test project at Crane is a collaboration of the Navy, Cinergy Corp. and Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, Canada.

For Cinergy, fuel cells are the power source of the future, said Jim Lefeld, manager of the utility’s distributive generation department.

The Dumpster-sized fuel cell at Crane already is earning its keep, where it’s powering the 25,000-square-foot lab through September 2001. This winter, scientists also hope to use it for heating the lab.

There is nothing new about fuel cell technology, which dates back to 1839. But its supporters are frustrated at the lack of development, or interest, in Indiana.

Jamie Harris, the executive director of the Bedford Urban Enterprise Association, is a staunch supporter — still searching for a university or a manufacturer to locate in his community.

“It’s just not on a lot of people’s radar screens. Even industry officials and bankers don’t know much about it,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer that we try to develop this industry in Indiana.”

But the problem in developing it for mass use has largely been one of cost. Crane’s fuel cell uses platinum — an expensive metal.

In 1980, platinum in a fuel cell made for a house cost about $9,000. Today, the cost is down to about $50 because researchers are using less of the material and using it more efficiently.

Other than pricey materials, the formula is fairly simple — a fuel processor takes hydrogen supplied from natural gas or propane. The fuel cell converts the hydrogen to electricity.

“The price of fuel cells won’t come down until a large number are produced,” said Lefeld. “And a large number won’t be produced until the price comes down.”

Jim Gucinski, a project manager at Crane, expects the first commercial users to be hospitals or computer chip makers. “As the industry matures, you get parts being mass produced. The size of the unit becomes smaller and better, and you get other people involved so you have competition,” he said.

Mosaic Energy of Des Plaines, Ill., expects to be selling house-sized units in 18 months. Mosaic is a joint venture of NiSource, a utility based in Indiana, and the Gas Technology Institute.

Mosaic has a prototype fuel cell being tested in a NiSource laboratory in Gary, a unit destined for installation in the Chesterton subdivision.

But Indiana has been fairly slow to take advantage of this clean technology.

While the Department of Commerce offers up to $250,000 interest-free loans for industries to improve fuel efficiencies, none have applied for grants to pursue fuel cells. No legislation has been passed providing tax credits or other incentives to encourage use, according to state officials.

Some lawmakers, though they sit on influential environmental or economic development committees, have never heard of the technology.

“What’s a fuel cell?” responded Rep. Jack Lutz, R-Anderson. “That probably gives you your answer about what the legislature is doing with fuel cells, which is to say others have not heard about them.”

By contrast, California, a state that envisions a fuel industry with annual revenues exceeding $10 billion by the end of this decade, is an active participant in the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California-Irvine.

Indiana should be more aggressive, said Andy Knott, policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Not only would it be good for the environment, but it could be a major boon to the economy.”

Despite the lag here, others believe it’s only a matter of time before fuel cells catch on.

“One day we may look back on power plants as we look back on the main frame computer industry and what’s happening with the personal computer,” said Cinergy’s Lefeld.

Author: David Rohn

News Service: Indianapolis Star

URL: http://www.enn.com/news/wire-stories/2000/08/08302000/krt_fuelcell_30996.asp

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