Hydrogen: Cool applications ... and a reality check

nophillips@thestate.comMarch 30, 2009 

Batteries in the old forklifts at the Bridgestone/Firestone plant in Aiken just weren’t efficient.

Each forklift needed three batteries at a time.

On top of that, forklift drivers might have changed batteries four to six times during a 12-hour shift, said Mitch Mussetter, engineering team leader at Bridgestone.

Oh, yeah, and the batteries were heavy.

The 2,000-pound behemoths were a bear to install — and took up valuable space inside the plant.

“We started looking at what else was out there, and in came the fuel cell,” Mussetter said.

This week, there will be lots of talk about the possibilities for hydrogen fuel cells at the annual conference of the National Hydrogen Association in Columbia. The city is positioning itself to be at the forefront of research and jobs as that technology develops.

Imagining what the technology can do is what gets most people excited.

Throughout the week, cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells will get the most attention from people who hope this form of energy replaces fossil fuels. Honda, Daimler and General Motors will show off their fuel cell prototypes.

But there’s a long road to travel before hydrogen-powered cars become mainstream.

“When people talk about hydrogen and fuel cells they always want to talk about cars,” said Neil McLean, executive director of EngenuitySC, a partnership that promotes the Midlands’ knowledge-based economy. “Cars are the furthest thing from being utilized out of all the things we’re doing.”

In the meantime, there are more practical applications.

Such as the forklift.

Or power generators.

Or batteries for scoreboards and video cameras (SCETV has one).

While scientists have figured out how to put hydrogen fuel cells to all kinds of uses, the key is finding applications that actually can make money, McLean said.

For now, hydrogen fuel cells are expensive, and the cost prohibits many companies from buying the technology.

That has been the case for John Weidner, a USC chemical engineering professor who two years ago figured out how to power Segway personal transporters with fuel cells.

A Segway travels farther on a fuel cell, and it’s quicker to recharge than a battery, he said.

However, the Segway fuel cell is a unique size, and the company that makes them was charging up to $3,500 for one. Now, the company is redesigning the product and those fuel cells aren’t even available, Weidner said.

“Technologically, it works great,” he said. “But ... it’s hard to justify the cost, so we haven’t sold any.”

Still, all technology has to start somewhere, McLean said.

“That’s how technology starts — in small niches that grow as it’s perfected,” he said.

PUTTING BATTERIES TO USE

One of the most likely candidates in the Midlands for creating a viable business is Trulite Technology, which operates out of the business incubator at Midlands Tech’s Northeast campus.

Trulite makes power generators that run on hydrogen fuel cells. The U.S. Navy is among its customers.

The 22-pound generators are being marketed to organizations that need power in remote locations, said Ken Pearson, chief operating officer for the California-based company. Because the generators are fueled by cartridges, users don’t need to tote gallons of gasoline to start them.

Right now, a Trulite generator sells for $2,495 and comes with eight recyclable cartridges that fuel it. As the company produces more generators, Pearson expects the price to come down.

In the future, Trulite believes it will use the cartridges as a constant revenue source.

“It’s kind of like the printer industry,” Pearson said. “They get the printers out there for cost or little profit. They sell the cartridges for recurring revenue.”

Efficiency, not financial savings, led Bridgestone to invest in hydrogen fuel cells.

Each fuel cell for a forklift costs $20,000, Mussetter said. The old-style batteries cost $4,000 to $6,000 each, but the company needed three for each vehicle.

“We’re getting eight to 10 hours of power on a fuel cell,” Mussetter said. “The refueling takes about five minutes, where recharging a (conventional) battery took about eight hours.

“The operators love them.”

And, “factory floor space is freed up,” he said. “How can I put a price on that?”

NEAT ... BUT IS IT PRACTICAL?

Other hydrogen fuel cell projects visible in Columbia are in place to promote hydrogen’s possibilities rather than serve as a cost-effective energy source.

That’s the case of the hydrogen fuel cell-powered scoreboard at USC’s new Carolina Stadium. Baseball fans hear about the scoreboard during every game.

“It’s a neat way to demonstrate it,” McLean said. “I’m not sure how practical it is.”

At Fort Jackson, the Army is spending $500,000 to buy 10 fuel cell backup power units for three buildings. It’s a project to test the performance and durability of the technology, said Russ Keller, senior director for alternative energies at the S.C. Research Authority, which helped coordinate the project between the military and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy wants to promote commercially competitive projects such as fuel cells as backup power generators, Keller said. By placing the fuel cell generators at Fort Jackson, others can see firsthand how they work.

“Some of the publicity and leadership that comes from this will blaze the trail for the commercial market,” Keller said. “Your cell phone tower operators and others will say, ‘Hey, let’s go get this.’”

The ultimate goal is to fill American highways with cars powered by fuel cells.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to have a “hydrogen highway” running through his state by 2010. That goal has run into a roadblock because it’s been hard to set up the 200 fueling stations needed to sustain the cars.

Plus, there aren’t enough hydrogen-powered cars on the highways to justify the expense, critics have argued. The cars have been produced in limited numbers, and most are too expensive for the average consumer.

Right now, hydrogen makes the most sense for fleet vehicles. Fueling stations are few and far between, but fleets can use a central station at their home base.

In the Midlands, Columbia is getting a hydrogen-powered bus for its city fleet.

The bus will use a hydrogen fuel station in Columbia. A second has been built in Aiken.

Those are the first steps toward putting more of the automobiles on S.C. roads.

McLean predicts it will be another six or seven years before the average consumer is interested in buying a hydrogen-powered car.

“The technology is ready. The cars have been built,” he said. “Infrastructure is the issue.

“You’ve got naysayers out there saying the hydrogen economy is never going to happen,” he said. “But you’ve got Toyota and Honda and other big companies like them spending tremendous amounts of money on building them.

“So, I say it’s going to happen.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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