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.

Why Shouldn’t Ohio Be the Second State to Have Fuel Cell Cars?

There are only two things that thrill my heart more than science: Jesus, and a place for the underdog to be heard and honored. This article is about the third love, science–in particular, fuel cell technology. I took a walk this morning on a (finally) warm spring day and dreamed about ownership of a brand new fuel cell car. Unfortunately, fuel cell cars, such as the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai, and Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, are only available for lease in California. Sleepy Ohio is a far cry from radical California. Then an idea struck me: Why shouldn’t Ohio be the second state to have fuel cell cars?

Fuel cell vehicles possess a few advantages over both typical combustion engine vehicles and electric vehicles. First, fuel cells are more efficient and cleaner than your typical combustion engine vehicle. Ideally, a fuel cell harnesses electrical energy from the chemical reaction where hydrogen from fuel combines with oxygen from air to produce water. The reaction garners significantly more usable energy from the hydrogen fuel than a combustion engine extracts from gasoline. Further, the only by-product is water, and there are no harmful emissions. In reality, the process is a bit more complicated, and not all fuel cells are truly zero-emission. However, fuel cell vehicles still maintain significant efficiency and environmental advantages over combustion engine vehicles.

Also, although electric vehicles compare favorably with fuel cell vehicles in the clean energy world, they require significant time to recharge (on a scale of hours) and have a limited driving range before recharging. Refueling of fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, occurs in a matter of minutes, on a similar time scale to standard gasoline refueling. The range of newer fuel cell cars comes close to 300 miles or more, which is much the same as a gasoline car. Fuel cell vehicles present a clear advantage.

With all the benefits, why aren’t more fuel cell vehicles operating on U.S. roads? The number one issue (other than money, of course) is the lack of hydrogen refueling stations (which is probably tied to money). Suppose you bring your brand new fuel cell car home one day. All week you drive around town, to work, to the grocery store, etc., and on Saturday you drive from Canton to Toledo. Sunday you turn around to come back home, and partway through the trip, you realize you’re almost out of gas–I mean, hydrogen. Every other exit boasts a gas station that is just off the exit, or, worst case scenario, four miles off the exit. No hydrogen stations to be found. You might as well be on the search for a space station. Most of the country sits in a similar rut.

California, however, boasts 35 open, functioning hydrogen stations and 30 more at various stages of preparation. While the number is significantly less than the number of gas stations, the viability of fuel cell vehicles in California rises every year.

Not many people would set Ohio in the same category as California. Despite its reputation, I have seen a different side of the cloudy Midwestern state. Consider first of all that, by the end of this year, SARTA, a public transit agency based in Stark County, Ohio will own and operate ten fuel cell buses. They already have their own hydrogen fueling station, and several of their fuel cell buses are currently in operation. With ten such buses, SARTA will be the largest non-Californian operator of hydrogen fuel cell buses in the U.S. Also, the U.S. Department of Energy lists a total of three private hydrogen fueling stations located in Ohio. Further, the state houses approximately 100 significant industries that supply components, materials, and testing services for fuel cell technologies, as well as the fuel cell manufacturer LG Fuel Cell Systems Inc. (formerly Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems Inc.). Additionally, Ohio State University, Kent State University, Cleveland State University, and NASA Glenn Research Center actively research fuel cell technology and infrastructure. Stark State College and Lorain County Community College provide workforce development and training specifically in the area of fuel cell technology. Even Walmart utilizes more than 250 fuel cell forklifts at its Ohio distribution centers alone. These activities represent only part of the advancement of fuel cell technology in Ohio.

With such a strong foundation, Ohio is already considered among the top five fuel cell states (along with California, Connecticut, New York, and South Carolina). California might be first, but the step to common use of fuel cell vehicles and a vibrant hydrogen refueling infrastructure is not inconceivable in humble Ohio. Who says innovation must occur only at the coasts? The Midwest has a lot to offer, and it’s about time we reach for second place. (Looks like I snuck in a little honor for the underdog after all).

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