2018 Ohio Fuel Cell Symposium

On Tuesday, October 2nd, a professor from Stark State College entered the large room housing the 2018 Ohio Fuel Cell Symposium, presented by the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition (OFCC) with the support of Ohio Development Services Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy division. The professor arrived at the end of a supply chain exchange and the beginning of the exhibit hall opening. She picked up her name badge, which said “Sponsor” in bold letters underneath her name, since Stark State hosted the event in an energy efficient wing of their building. Then she perused the exhibitor’s tables and anticipated Wednesday’s presentations by business leaders and academic and national laboratory researchers.

The exhibitors included companies, universities, and government organizations. Some of the companies promoted their existing products, such as HIBLOW’s hydrogen recirculation blower, Micro Sales’ testing and measurement systems with beautiful electronic displays, Zircar Ceramics’ materials explained by friendly representatives. In the hopes of gaining business partnerships, Solar Wind Storage displayed a fascinating video of their unique underground hydrogen storage system, which uses water pressure to compress the hydrogen. Additionally, SARTA, Anywhere Energy, Bosal, Rockwell Automation, M-Line Inc., and pH Matter, LLC set up excellent displays.

Kent State University and the University of Akron also exhibited their fuel cell-related research projects. The University of Akron showed several projects, including a fuel cell that used cellulose paper (that’s toilet paper, for the non-scientists) as a fuel source. Several knowledgeable graduate students from Professor Steven Chuang’s lab explained the projects. Professor Yan Duhai of Kent State brought his research team as well, and they excitedly explained a spiral tubular fuel cell design and invited guests to visit their lab.

Argonne National Laboratory and NASA arrayed several fliers, stickers, and resources at the event. NASA’s representatives were wise and helpful, and, besides exhibiting, NASA also sponsored the symposium.

Furthermore, SARTA, a leader in the hydrogen fuel cell movement, was not only an exhibitor, but also sponsored the event and provided free bus rides on one of their thirteen fuel cell buses. Besides NASA, SARTA, and Stark State College, other sponsors included LG Fuel Cell Systems (LGFCS) and Honda.

Wednesday’s presentations proceeded only slightly over the allotted time, but everyone eagerly questioned the speakers and enjoyed the progress of clean energy. Pat Valente, Executive Director of the OFCC, and Kirt Conrad, CEO of SARTA and Chairman of the OFCC, introduced the speakers, and Don Ball, Dean of Engineering at Stark State, welcomed the guests to Stark State.

Shailesh Vora from the National Energy Technology Laboratory spoke first. He explained the progress in their solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) research over the last several years from cell development on up to systems development to prepare the SOFCs for market. Currently, small scale prototype systems are being tested, and the lab hopes to reach MW scale demonstrations over the next decade.

Next, LGFCS’s president, Andrew Marsh, gave an overview of their place in the SOFC world. In particular, LGFCS has just launched a demonstration SOFC in their backyard on Stark State’s Main campus.* Anyone is free to observe (from outside a fence) the new SOFC system, which not only generates electricity, but efficiently captures excess heat inside the fuel cells to both improve fuel cell performance and to provide combined heat and power generation.

With perfect timing partway through the morning sessions, Professor Jack Brouwer blew the audience away with his dramatic presentation on the advantages of storing clean energy via hydrogen rather than batteries. Brouwer, Director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine, clearly demonstrated that hydrogen storage drastically outperforms lithium-ion batteries in both effectiveness and cost.

Another Andy Marsh (Plug Power’s CEO) explained Plug Power’s progress in fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) and the necessity of such FCEVs. Their hydrogen forklifts are already in frequent use at Walmart and Amazon distribution centers, and hydrogen fuel cells in delivery trucks and ships are just getting started. Marsh added to Brouwer’s argument with a plug for the use of fuel cells rather than batteries to power drones, due to lifetime and recharging concerns.

Over the lunch hour, two surprise awards were given to long-time OFCC members. Bill Whittenberger and Bill Dawson each received a lifetime achievement award due to the growth and influence of their companies. Then Rodger McKain’s longtime service in the fuel cell industry, such as the establishment of the OFCC and his work at LGFCS, earned him a leadership achievement award as well. Also, while guests waited for the food to arrive, Manny Anunike from Ohio Development Services Agency explained possibilities to help organizations increase energy efficiency through audits and loans.

Another Plug Power representative, Tim Terrill, spoke after lunch. He focused on Plug Power’s improvement of their big picture provision to customers. Every step matters, from fuel cell engines, to fueling infrastructure and fuel delivery of fuel, and on up to service and maintenance post-purchase. Assistance at every step over the complete process eases customer fears and increases the likelihood that businesses will transition to hydrogen energy.

The final speaker, Anthony Leo from FuelCell Energy, described fuel cell power plants for distributed power generation and distributed hydrogen as transportation fuel. Even natural gas fuel for fuel cells is an improvement over conventional coal or natural gas plants, but biogas fuel decreases carbon dioxide emissions substantially more. Further, their SureSource Hydrogen system not only produces power, but also co-generates heat and produces hydrogen that may be used as fuel. In 2020, the project will be in operation at the Port of Long Beach, California on a megawatt scale.

The symposium concluded with a tour of SARTA’s state-of-the-art hydrogen refueling station and stories of adventures along the way in the process of establishing the station. Photographs, networking, and jokes ended the day as engineers, business men and women, academicians, reporters, presidents, CEOs, and students rode back to their cars on a brand new, excellently driven, zero-emission fuel cell bus. The future is here.

*UPDATE: Regretfully, LGFCS closed its Fuel Cell Prototyping Center on Stark State’s campus in December 2018. The demonstration SOFC’s future is up in the air.