Fuel cell demos work but it’s a long road to your driveway

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Mar. 15, 2005 — Try to get Bob Sinuc to pontificate on the future of fuel cell technology and you won’t get far. Instead, the vice president of engineering for fuel cell developer Plug Power will politely remind you that, “we’re a reality-based company.”

So it’s no surprise to see Plug Power announce the operation of its second-generation experimental home energy station without much accompanying hype. No flowing descriptions of how the device will enable the hydrogen economy. No explanations of how this technology will cure all evil by liberating the world from oil. It’s as if they’re merely saying, “Here it is. Any questions?”

However, what they have created is a device — the home energy station — that could disrupt a variety of industries if it could one day be affordable to the average homeowner.

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The current design of the station runs on either natural gas or propane, along with a supply of water. The fuel and water are used to make hydrogen, which powers a fuel cell to generate electricity. Waste heat is dissipated or used to supplement a home’s primary heating system. In addition, hydrogen is generated and stored at high pressure for fueling up a fuel cell car. The process at the core of this type of fuel cell — known as a PEM, or proton exchange membrane cell — occurs at the nanoscale.

Plug Power already had a first-generation unit in experimental operation in Torrance, Calif., in partnership with Honda, which uses it to fuel up its FCX experimental fuel cell car. Now that Honda has unveiled a new FCX designed to work in cold temperatures, the two companies saw fit to put a second-generation home energy station in a cold climate. Plug Power’s hometown of Latham, near Albany in upstate New York, was a perfect fit.

Automakers, says Sinuc, “realized that at some point in the development of fuel cell cars they are going to be limited by the infrastructure.” In short, no one’s going to buy fuel cell cars if there isn’t anywhere to fuel them up.

But if you could buy a home energy station along with your fuel cell car and fuel up your car at home in six minutes the value proposition suddenly changes. Add to that the additional benefit of generating your own electricity and gaining supplemental heat, and you’ve got a combination that could certainly lure some early adopters.

Sinuc wouldn’t comment on the business model to eventually sell the device, but he said there are no restrictions. The company could sell it to gas station operators or homeowners, and it could work with Honda or other automakers to sell the home energy station in tandem with a car.

Plug Power and Honda are not the only companies to hit on this idea. In February, UTC Fuel Cells, Hyundai Motor Co. and ChevronTexaco unveiled a hydrogen energy station at the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center in Chino, Calif. The project is part of a Department of Energy-sponsored hydrogen fleet and infrastructure program.

The program has similar goals — to test a fleet of fuel cell vehicles, in this case Hyundai Tucsons and Kia Sportage fuel cell vehicles — to demonstrate safe and practical hydrogen technologies in real-world use.

These collaborations are going a long way to assuage some of the biggest fears about the so-called hydrogen economy — that transporting hydrogen would be dangerous, that generating it on-site would be impractical, or that fuel cell cars can’t be made to work in cold climates.

However, don’t sell your current car just yet. Sinuc and other experts are quick to point out it’s a very long way from proof-of-concept to your putting a fuel cell car in your driveway or an energy station in your home.

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