Putting technology to work at Hydrogen Conference

Throughout the National Hydrogen Association’s conference and expo, scientists and entrepreneurs have been showing off their ideas for how hydrogen fuel cells can be used.

Magnetic levitation: This was the most futuristic presentation of the day with a computer-generated video showing people boarding sleek, silver space capsules, powered by fuel cells.

Magnetic levitation transportation already exists, mostly in trains that are propelled by a system of magnets.

But Paul Williamson, director of the University of Montana Alternative Energy Technologies, showed off a project that would transport people in individual pods. He called them “silver bullets,” which is sort of what they looked like. His group is planning to build a 400-foot loop to demonstrate the first silver bullet, powered by a fuel cell.

Home fueling: An overflow crowd crammed into the seminar on home refueling stations.

The idea is to design hydrogen-versions of gas stations for homes. These stations would produce hydrogen that people could use to power their cars.

“It’s not just a dispensary,” said Martin Shimko, president of Avalence LLC, a company that builds hydrogen-generating equipment. “It’s kind of like having your own oil refinery and dispenser.”

The stations could be powered by solar or wind, which would create enough electricity to create the hydrogen, which would power fuel cells.

But big questions remain, Shimko said: How to design them so they’re not too ugly for neighborhoods? How noisy can they be? Can an affordable repairman service them? Will people be satisfied if it takes six to eight hours to refuel a car?

Bus fleets: Putting hydrogen fuel cell-powered buses on the road will be easier to accomplish than cars. That’s because buses are operated in fleets and can share centralized fueling stations.

Columbia will show off one of these buses. It was introduced this week but will leave town for a few months to undergo final testing. The bus will return in July and will be used by the local transit authority and USC.

Backup power: Ted Motyka, a scientist from the Savannah River National Laboratory, explained his work on big fuel cells that could create their own hydrogen and serve as back up power for at least eight hours.

His target audience is the telecom industry, which could use the fuel cells at their transmission towers. During a power outage, the fuel cells would kick in and power the towers.

Hydrogen as a utility: Homes and businesses have electricity and natural gas piped to them.

Why not have hydrogen delivered the same way, asked Thomas Joseph, business development manger for Air Products and Chemicals. First, there needs to be a demand. And, there’s not a structure for how much people would have to pay. “We’re ready to take it to the next level,” Joseph said. “Are you?”