Bill Fuglevand holds a power plant in his hand.
Barely five inches square and less than a quarter-inch thick, the sandwich of graphite wafers and what looks like cellophane is the core of a fuel cell, the technology that keeps the lights on in the space shuttle.
An explosion in a fuel cell hydrogen tank triggered the near catastrophe aboard Apollo 13.
But Fuglevand isn’t thinking disaster. The chief technical services engineer for Washington Water Power Co. envisions a plant that could produce low-cost electricity and heat for large users like businesses.
Ultimately, they could deliver power to residential areas.
And John Ryan, assistant director of the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, foresees a new industry based on the work of Fuglevand, WWP and a consortium of other area companies and colleges.
“Our whole path is towards commercialization of these technologies,” Ryan said.
SIRTI and WWP in April launched a $1.9 million, two-year effort to create a fuel cell capable of producing about 2 kilowatts of electricity, about one-fifth what the typical home uses.
If the technology proves viable at that low level, Fuglevand said, units could be built for use in locations too remote to be served by wire, or for portable applications, as in recreational vehicles.
More importantly, he said, they could be scaled up to produce power in quantities large enough to meet the needs of commercial customers in areas where electricity from conventional sources is expensive.
Fuglevand said researchers project a plant about 85 percent efficient, far better than coal- or natural gas-fired generators, and only slightly less than the most efficient home gas furnaces.
The catch is cost.
The hydrogen that powers fuel cells comes from natural gas. Companies developing fuel cell technology have not yet developed a simple, inexpensive way to break the chemical bonds within natural gas between the hydrogen, carbon and oxygen.
Also, fuel cells produce DC current, as opposed to the AC that energizes American homes and industry. So the cells must convert the power to AC, at additional expense.
Add to these technical challenges the question of whether SIRTI and WWP can beat as many as two dozen other companies, some with far bigger bankrolls, to the market with a practical plant.
“There’s not a void out there,” said John O’Sullivan, head of the fuel cell commercialization effort at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif.
“The secret will be, ‘Can their technology be reduced to the kind of cost levels it will take to compete in the marketplace?”’
O’Sullivan estimated the federal government and industry are spending as much as $90 million on fuel cell research in the United States.
Several of Japan’s industrial giants are also heavily involved in research and development efforts.
The California institute recently started up a 2-megawatt fuel cell - the largest ever in the U.S. - using molten carbon technology.
Molten carbon is one of five proven fuel cell technologies, all of which are based on electro-chemical reactions. Fuel cells do not involve combustion.
At SIRTI, researchers are working with solid polymers, which are chains of simpler molecules. In the sandwich Fuglevand was holding, the polymer was the clear material - Nafion - related chemically to Teflon.
Gonzaga University chemistry Professor Shibli Bayyuk, who has been working on the fuel cell project for the last two months, said Nafion is a problem because of cost and environmental threats.
Dupont, he said, charges $2,000 per pound for the patented material.
And the chemical components of Nafion attack atmospheric ozone, Bayyuk said.
So he and other Gonzaga professors and students are using a small wet lab in SIRTI’s basement to search for an alternative to the Dupont compound.
To help, noted Fuglevand, SIRTI has obtained the latest generation of computer software for modeling how a compound will look at the molecular level, and what its chemical properties might be.
Those with promise are synthesized in the lab. Bayyuk said fuel cell polymers must be stable under relatively high heat and allow water to pass through while blocking the passage of electrons and oxygen.
The process of synthesizing polymers is a relatively simple one. Several can be prepared in a day.
On a recent Friday, scraps of two new compounds were drying on a counter top.
Both looked like the filling of an Oreo cookie. Bayyuk squeezed one to demonstrate its desirable ability to hold water, then pulled it apart to show its unfortunate fragility.
The second, the brainchild of Gonzaga student Matt Mellon, ripped more easily still.
But Bayyuk said preliminary tests on some samples indicate proton conductivity 100 times better than the Dupont polymer. And the cost of the raw materials is only $30 per pound.
Even for Bayyuk, a self-described theoretical chemist, the down-to-Earth prospects are exciting.
A breakthrough could return an investment in the research a thousand-fold, said Bayyuk, who earnestly scribbles equations on a small blackboard as he explains the ongoing experiments.
Down the hall, workers are putting together another lab where more modeling and testing will be done, and a team of engineers will work on ways of fabricating the new compounds in sandwiches that might also exclude the graphite, another expensive component.
But the SIRTI building on Riverpoint Boulevard is not the only place where scientists are working on the fuel cell effort.
Fuglevand said ElectroChem, a Boston-area company, is working in conjunction with the SIRTI effort.
ElectroChem, he said, already makes fuel cells. The company will try to shrink its units to 2-kilowatt size as it transfers responsibility for production of the polymer sandwiches to SIRTI.
But while the Spokane team relies on existing technology for some of that work, members will also experiment with new sandwich components that improve on the ElectroChem product, Fuglevand said.
“It’s a dual-track process,” he said.
Also, at Washington State University, chemical engineering Professor Bill Thompson is trying to develop a ceramic membrane that will free the hydrogen in natural gas.
His results will be tested at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at Hanford, Ryan said.
“If we’re successful on that then we’ll have a very unique sort of technology,” he said.
Ryan said that work is being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, with small contributions by SIRTI and WWP.
Ryan said team members gather Friday afternoons to rehash results of the week’s work and brainstorm next week’s research.
Participating students like Gonzaga’s Mellon get training in basic but practical research, with the chance that a breakthrough may lead to a job with a new company that would manufacture the fuel cells.
“The world is ready for it,” Fuglevand said.
Although unable to name the other parties involved until the contracts are signed, he added that WWP expects to install a 200-kilowatt fuel cell made by another manufacturer somewhere in its service territory for testing and demonstration purposes.
The president of the company that would supply the unit, which is about the size of an RV trailer, was in Spokane last week to inspect potential sites.
Fuglevand said a low-cost utility like WWP is interested in fuel cells and other advanced technologies because company marketing representatives are fanning out across the U.S. to reach customers where high rates expose local utilities to competition.
Also, he added, utilities may look less to large, centralized generating stations in the future, and more to smaller units that could be placed closer to ratepayers.
“We want to provide the full range of energy services across the country,” Fuglevand said.
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