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Fuell Cell Fervor


When John Goodman opens his laptop at meetings, he never looks for an electric outlet or worries about his battery going dead in the middle of a presentation.Goodman’s laptop runs on a fuel cell.

“People are always very intrigued by it,” and surprised the technology has come so far, says Goodman, president of the fuel cell division at Entegris, Inc., a Chaska-based high-tech materials company.

Goodman’s briefcase-size fuel cell produces electricity for his computer by means of a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. It runs on a cartridge of methanol (wood alcohol), providing clean, quiet, reliable power, “and it doesn’t run down like a battery.”

First demonstrated 150 years ago, fuel cells have become the subject of intense research and commercial development. All the major automakers are working on fuel cell vehicles, investing $500 million to $1 billion a year in the race to be first, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce. And President Bush has proposed spending $1.2 billion for research on the fuel-cell-powered FreedomCar. Likewise, the European Union plans to spend $2 billion on fuel cell research over the next three years.

In the coming decades, Goodman says fuel cell use will become widespread – first in portable electronic devices such as laptops and cell phones, then in stationary power units for buildings and homes, and finally in vehicles. Widespread use could revolutionize the domestic energy industry, displacing fossil fuel power and boosting the United States’ energy independence. “Think of how pervasive microelectronics are today,” Goodman says. “We think fuel cells will be the same.”

Computer start to auto finish

In fact, it will be only a year or two before consumers can buy a reasonably-priced, fuel-cell-powered laptop, says Goodman, who works with fuel cell manufacturers in North America, Europe and Japan. The fuel cell will fit in the computer’s battery case and will run on a disposable fuel cartridge of methanol or ethanol about the size of a deck of cards. “When it runs out, you’ll just put in a new one.” No recharging needed.

Next to be commercialized are stationary fuel cells large enough to power buildings, Goodman says. Entegris last August installed a 5-kilowatt stationary fuel cell at its Chaska headquarters.

Last May, Dow Chemical Company and General Motors Corp. announced plans to explore the use of stationary fuel cells at Dow’s manufacturing plant in Freeport, Texas, according to a Dow news release. The plant could eventually use up to 35 megawatts of power generated from coproduct hydrogen. Projects like these demonstrate that “the technology is real, it’s available, and it’s a step in the right direction,” Goodman says.

Fuel cells in vehicles will likely be commercialized last, Goodman says. The engineering and infrastructure challenges of shifting from petroleum vehicles to fuel cell vehicles are daunting. One example: a nationwide system for transporting, storing and dispensing hydrogen for millions of fuel cell cars will be needed – a task some have likened to building the interstate highway system.

Yet fuel cell cars – efficient and potentially pollution-free – may be the real force creating a shift to hydrogen energy, says Rolf Nordstrom, director of the Upper Midwest Hydrogen Initiative, a public-private coalition promoting renewable hydrogen. In the 1920s, advances in automobile technology sparked a similar shift from horse-powered vehicles to gasoline powered vehicles. What happened?

“Ford made cars affordable,” Goodman says.

A $2 trillion market by 2020

Today, though, fuel cells are still too expensive for widespread use. They are found in applications where cost is not a primary concern such as NASA spacecraft and as backup power sources in hospital operating rooms and data processing centers.

But the price of fuel cell electricity will fall sharply as the technology improves and use grows – just as prices of computers and other electronic goods have plunged in the last 30 years, Goodman says. “We’ll see a similar progression with fuel cells.”

Electricity from the most widely marketed stationary fuel cells now costs $3,000 to $4,500 per kilowatt, according to a recent Minnesota Department of Commerce report on hydrogen’s economic potential. An industry study suggests that the price will need to drop by more than half to achieve market penetration.

Just how important could hydrogen fuel cells become? The current market for fuel cells is about $218 million a year, according to the Commerce Department report. By the end of this decade, the annual worldwide fuel cell market could reach $7 billion, the report estimates, and by 2020, nearly $2 trillion.

But in truth, it’s anybody’s guess, Goodman says. It’s as if, in 1965, “you’d been asked to predict the size of the microelectronics industry today, to predict Intel and Microsoft,” he says. “It’s a small market now, but we think there’s great growth potential.”