Expo highlights: start-ups, switchgrass, and manure

Good place for a start-up? The seminar “Doing Business in South Carolina” was a late addition to the conference, but might have accomplished its goal.

A man grilled presenters during the S.C. Department of Commerce’s presentation, wanting to know why one company had to deal with so many groups when starting a business in Columbia and whether South Carolina had legislation promoting alternative energy.

He admitted to representing a group of investors in Pennsylvania, who are looking for a location for a start-up company. The seminar ended with the unnamed man huddled with Commerce’s deputy secretary Jack Ellenberg and a representative from the S.C. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Alliance.

Turning manure into hydrogen: Three S.C. State University scientists are trying to put to good use two things that the state has plenty of: cow manure and switchgrass. At a conference exhibit, they were cooking the mixture inside a bioreactor to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen gas was siphoned off to power a little fan.

It’s the first, small step to bigger plans, said Nazimuddin Mohammed, an assistant professor. “Eventually, our target is to produce a bioreactor for farmers,” he said. “He could use the hyrdrogen on the farm as energy or sell it back to the electric companies.”

Did they come? Conference attendance appears to be less than anticipated. More than 700 researchers, entrepreneurs, and government officials had registered for the event as of Tuesday.

Organizers said they expected about 1,000 and past conference have drawn about 1,500 participants from around the world. But the association figured the sagging economy would force some to stay home. Attendance could increase as the event continues through Friday.

Hydrogen station bill: S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell announced legislation Tuesday that would standardize regulations for hydrogen fueling stations and place permitting under the Office of the State Fire Marshall.

If approved, South Carolina would be the first in the nation to permit hydrogen fueling stations at the state level, he said. The House bill has 100 co-sponsors. The legislation was introduced a day after the state opened its first two hydrogen fueling stations in Aiken County and Columbia.

Hydro-challenges: As the hydrogen industry attempts to grow, it’s facing strong challenges from the economy and other technologies, JoAnn Milliken, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s hydrogen program, told the conference.

“Costs must be lowered and durability improved for all applications,” she said. The plug-in hybrid car, Milliken said, will hit the U.S. market in 2010, while the first car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell might not be delivered until 2015.

But some of hydrogen’s problems might involve perception, she said, noting that some fuel cell systems are already in industrial and military use.


“You are surrounded by a community and infrastructure that support you and understand your business”

— BOB COBLE, Columbia mayor, during his morning address

Compiled by Chuck Crumbo, Jeff Wilkinson and Noelle Phillips