A switch was pulled and the shelves of equipment murmured softly and turned on the lights. A house in Miami's Bay Heights quietly went off the grid and onto hydrogen power.
Sitting on the chassis shelves were the working fuel cell parts: fans whirring to cool black metal boxes, a spaghetti bowl of plastic tubes running in and out of the gas control units and stocky black power conditioners converting raw electricity to alternating current. Outside were four tanks of hydrogen flowing into the cells.
For the event, Ken Detko, president of Conexa, a Miami-based distributing company for the fuel cell, set up a PowerPoint program. And in the end, it, too, worked on hydrogen power.
Detko persuaded the creators of Hydra Fuel Cell and American Hydrogen Corp. to come to Miami and demonstrate the system in a house belonging to his friend Nancy Benovaich.
The demo was the culmination of two years of effort, said Benjamin Schafer, chief technical officer of Hydra Fuel Cell, showing that with his fuel cell, hydrogen can be used to produce affordable electricity for home use.
Hydra produced the fuel cell; American Hydrogen is licensed to commercialize a converter that will crack the ammonia molecule into hydrogen and nitrogen. Both companies are owned by American Security Resources Corp. in Houston.
Spurred by the escalating costs and diminishing supplies of fossil fuels, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy and the private sector are searching for alternatives. Solar, wind and hydrogen are in the forefront of the candidates to produce electricity. While the National Energy Technology Laboratory works on fueling cars with hydrogen and creating large-scale power generating capabilities, smaller efforts are underway at universities and private firms.
The Florida Solar Energy Center, for example, is working on a number of hydrogen fronts, including creating hydrogen from biomass (citrus peels), hydrogen storage units and fuel cells.
Schafer's cell, called Hydrastax 5000, is expected to be on the market by fall, said Lexie Weaver, Schafer's wife and director of operations for American Hydrogen Corp.
Hydrastax 5000 produces five kilowatts of electricity that can power the average house or serve as emergency power supply. Orders already have come in, company officers say. Whole house generators powered by propane or natural gas generally produce between 10 and 20 kilowatts of power or more.
Schafer, an affable man from Beaverton, Ore., is an electrical engineer who went back to school in 2004 to earn a master's degree in technology management to look at the future of energy. He already had served in the Navy as an electrician's mate in submarine service and worked for ITT Aerospace Communications as well as Intel.
Sitting on a porch step repairing a water recirculation pump before the demonstration, Schafer explained that hydrogen and oxygen are mixed by running them through a membrane to produce electricity and, as a byproduct, water.
"The purpose of fuel cells is to get better efficiency out of fuel," Schafer said. "The internal combustion engine is 10 to 14 percent efficient. A fuel cell is 45 percent efficient. So an automobile using a fuel cell could double or quadruple its efficiency."
Certain parts of the Hydrastax are the company's proprietary designs. The version that will be produced for the residential market should cost about $15,000 after it goes into production in Ohio later this year, without accounting for an ammonia-to-hydrogen converter.
Schafer is working with research scientist Gerardine Botte, director of the electrochemical engineering and research lab at Ohio University, to commercialize the ammonia converter that Botte developed and patented.
American Hydrogen has set up offices at the university's Innovation Center in Athens, Ohio, to manufacture its equipment.
The ammonia-derived hydrogen will dramatically bring down the cost of hydrogen-based electricity, Schafer said. Initial tests indicate they can produce a kilowatt hour of hydrogen for far less than $2. The Department of Energy has set $2 to $3 as a goal for a kilowatt of hydrogen. But Schafer is optimistic that the cost will dramatically come down: "I calculate 30 cents a kilowatt," he said.
COST OF ELECTRICITY
Electricity from Florida Power and Light now costs 12 cents a kilowatt hour. However, in other parts of the country, such as New England and California, energy costs are much higher, said James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center. New England is paying 18 cents and San Diego is paying 32 cents during peak time.
Frank Neukomm, chairman of the American Security Resources, bought Schafer's company in 2005, bankrolling the fuel cell development.
"The design these guys came up with can be mass-produced and operate at a lower temperature," Neukomm said. "There is nothing more central to the security of the United States than energy security, and this can reduce our dependence on carbon-based resources."
Hydrogen power already is working across the country in out-of-the-way places.
Patrick Serfass with the National Hydrogen Association, a trade association, said hydrogen powers 200,000 to 300,000 cellphone towers in the United States, plus forklifts and airport tugs that pull baggage carts.
Major automobile manufacturers, including Honda, General Motors and BMW, have introduced a few hydrogen-powered cars.
"The cost of hydrogen systems now is high because they are not being produced in volume," said Serfass. "Energy costs are rising, and so it's a matter of time."
USED IN JAPAN
A residential one-kilowatt unit that runs off kerosene or natural gas is being used in Japan, Serfass said. The systems, made by Ballard Power Systems, can be used for heat, water and electricity and have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 38 to 40 percent, he said, compared to the same amount of fossil-fuel-based electricity.
Schafer was spurred to investigate hydrogen power when the lights went out at his ranch in Imnaha, Oregon, five years ago.
"The electric company went down for 10 days and I lost a freezer of elk and was not a happy camper," he said. "I started looking for something I could use for electricity: photovoltaics, wind . . . and tried to buy a fuel cell. There was none available, so I got into the business."
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