It’s been a quarter century since Dr. Emmitt Brown pulled up in his DeLorean flying car time machine, flipped open the lid, put beer and a banana peel into the vehicle’s hydrogen generator, and took off back to the future, proclaiming to passengers Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” That was the final scene in the 1985 movie, “Back to the Future.” In 2011, our cars aren’t time machines, and most of us are still driving on roads.
But a Bend alternative energy company, Element One, announced plans Sept. 10 to mass produce a device that makes hydrogen, suitable for powering fuel cells, from a mixture of water and methanol or wood alcohol, which can be derived from things like banana peels and other garbage, crop residues, animal wastes and woody slash from forest-thinning projects.
The device is a methanol fuel reformer, which represents the next generation in hydrogen fuel processing that skips the bulky and more expensive stage where hydrogen was supplied as a compressed gas delivered in 200-pound cylinders, according to Element One’s co-founders. After more than 20 years of research, product development and manufacture of an earlier hydrogen generator that proved too expensive for most uses, Element One co-founders Dave Edlund and Rob Schluter signed a three-year strategic partnership with Chung-Hsin Electric and Machinery Manufacturing, out of Taipei, Taiwan, for the manufacture and distribution of their simplified methanol fuel reformers that will sell for dramatically lower prices. In a press statement about the agreement, CHEM Chairman Eric Chiang said the E1 Pegasus series of methanol reformers developed by Element One has broken the pricing barrier that limited use of hydrogen-powered fuel cells as an energy source in the past. “Usi Dave Edlund, left, and Robert Schluter, co-founders of Element One, hold a jug of methanol mixed with water and a hydrogen reformer coil, which are key components of the Bend company’s E1 Pegasus hydrogen fuel reformer to be manufactured by Chung-Hsin Electric and Machinery Manufacturing, of Taipei, Taiwan. They displayed their new, lower-cost fuel reformer Monday in the Element One lab in Bend. With the 2-foot-square E1 Pegasus fuel reformer on the table between Edlund and Schluter, making hydrogen is as simple as pouring a mixture of water and methanol into one end, and hydrogen comes out the other end. practical for much of our market, which limits the potential for fuel cell system sales,” Chiang said. “Few companies offer an affordable alternative.” Chiang said the principals at Element One and CHEM share a common vision for a future powered by hydrogen fuel cell systems. “Together, we can meet the current and future needs of our markets,” Chiang said. ‘Huge step’ “This is a huge step, and it happened very quickly,” Edlund said. While he has spent decades on hydrogen- and fuel cell-related research, Edlund said he and Schluter just formed Element One in May. Edlund is the scientist and Schluter, a former banker and past owner of Pangea Resources in Bend, has expertise in marketing and sales. “Hydrogen is the energy fuel source of the future,” Edlund said. “Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. It is the fuel that powers the stars. It is a major component in water, animals, plants, petroleum and natural gas,” added Edlund, who has been researching and working to advance hydrogen into a commercially viable alternative energy source ever since he earned his doctorate in chemistry from the University of Oregon in 1987, and in his initial work at Bend Research. In 1996, he and Alan Guggenheim co-founded IdaTech, a fuel cell manufacturing company in Bend, and four months ago Edlund and Schluter formed Element One to advance Edlund’s improved device for extracting hydrogen from a mixture of methanol and water. “Since the early days of the space program, billions of dollars have been spent on fuel cell technology, but the problem with it has always been the need for big, bulky cylinders of hydrogen,” Edlund said. “We have come up with a better way of making hydrogen for fuel cells. This is the new technology,” Edlund said. “It simplifies the whole process and dramatically lowers the cost, which is the key to making hydrogen fuel technology commercially viable. “The approach we are taking is to use a feed stock of alcohol and water, and from that we can extract hydrogen using a small appliance,” Edlund said. “The small appliance is the new technology. It is designed to work with anyone’s fuel cell. Our appliance can be substituted for 200-pound tanks of compressed hydrogen.” Roger Lee, executive director at Economic Development for Central Oregon, said he worked with Edlund when he was with Bend Research and later when he founded IdaTech in Bend, and in the search for venture capital to launch Element One. “We are excited about what (Edlund) is doing and that he has chosen to launch his new company here in Bend,” Lee said. “He has credibility with his achievements at Bend Research and in founding IdaTech. He is definitely one of those certified smart people who has proven experience in the industry.” Market potential Schluter said initial production of around 2,000 E1 Pegasus hydrogen generators a year being manufactured by Element One and CHEM targets a growing need in Asia for hydrogen to power fuel cells used as a backup power supply to cell towers and other communications equipment. “As you can imagine, in this part of the world, hauling heavy cylinders of gas to remote locations is difficult, if not impossible,” Schluter said. Compared with previous versions of fuel reformers that sold for around $50,000, Schluter said the simplified technology devised by Edlund allows Element One to produce fuel reformers that sell for less than half that price. Through the mass production agreement with CHEM, he said the price is expected to drop another 25 to 30 percent. Terry Carlone, chairman of Altergy Systems, a fuel cell manufacturer based in the Sacramento, Calif., area, said the lower cost of Element One’s fuel reformers will, in his opinion, open a floodgate of fuel cell use that he believes will have great technological and humanitarian benefits in remote areas of the world. “We believe they are onto something really good here,” Carlone said. “It really shortens the time period during which fuel cell generation can come in to remote areas of the world. “It (Element One’s fuel reformer) takes methanol or natural gas, which is very available in remote areas, and transforms it into hydrogen that can power fuel cells for as long as it is needed,” Carlone said. The immediate benefits of the lower-cost Element One fuel reformers is in providing power or backup power to cell towers in one-third of the world that’s not wired with electric power lines. Carlone said that market includes remote areas across China and much of Asia, where electricity is not widely available, but methanol is readily available. Fuel cells convert hydrogen into energy, and as the costs drop, more telecommunications companies are choosing to go with hydrogen-powered fuel cell systems in place of diesel generators and lead-acid batteries as backup power to cell towers, Carlone said. Supplying fuel cell systems as power or backup power for cell towers represents a $10 billion market that is growing by 20 to 30 percent a year, Carlone said. It represents a huge market that he describes as “the low-hanging fruit everyone is going after.” Additionally, the lower cost of hydrogen-powered fuel cell systems will open other markets and can provide humanitarian benefits, he said. Those include supplying electricity for wells and water pumps for domestic and agricultural uses, and bringing refrigeration of food and medicines to remote areas, and light and electricity to homes, schools and businesses. Edlund said the agreement with CHEM is the first stem in Element One’s global vision. “Element One seeks to align itself with the best energy technology companies within each geographic region of the world,” Edlund said. “China is undergoing rapid growth in their telecom infrastructure and represents an ideal opportunity for fuel cell and related companies to sell their backup power solutions.” So far, due to the high cost and bulkiness of compressed hydrogen cylinders and earlier versions of fuel reformers, use of hydrogen to power cars has taken a backseat to ethanol-blended fuels, batteries and solar power, but Edlund said the improvements made by Element One bring the potential for powering cars with hydrogen-fueled fuel cells a step closer. In “Back to the Future,” the Mr. Fusion device Brown adapted to power his DeLorean was something he picked up during time travel. It’s akin to a kitchen trash compactor that gleaned enough energy from garbage to power a home in 2015. Edlund said the Mr. Fusion concept caught his attention while he was a college student, but at the time he didn’t foresee methanol as a source of hydrogen-powered fuel cells. “I suppose it did influence me in a way,” Edlund said. “I think (the movie) did expand science fact to science fiction in a way that is plausible.” The E1 Pegasus methanol fuel reformer displayed in the Element One lab in Bend generates 3 kilowatts per hour of power, which Edlund said is enough to power a typical American home. “You put a mixture of water and methanol in one end, and hydrogen comes out the other end. It’s that simple,” Edlund said. While the cost of using hydrogen-fueled fuel cells is still too high to compete with other energy sources readily available in developed areas of the world, Edlund said the E1 Pegasus brings that technology a step closer to reality. As for taking trash and directly converting it into energy like Mr. Fusion depicted in “Back to the Future,” Edlund said that’s a two-step process today. The first step takes place in gasifier plants that convert various types of wastes, biomass or natural gas into methanol — a form of wood alcohol. The E1 Pegasus methanol reformer completes the second phase of the process by converting methanol into hydrogen. In cars someday? Using hydrogen derived from methanol to power fuel cells is what Edlund and Schluter see as the future replacement for gasoline and other sources of energy, especially in Asia, Africa and South America. All of the E1 Pegasus components fit inside a 2-square-foot box. So, yes, a version might wind up in a car’s engine compartment someday, Edlund said. Vehicles equipped with a future version of the E1 Pegasus may pull up in front of a fueling station of the future and fill up with a blend of methanol and water, and continue their journey down the road, if we still need roads by then. Schluter and Edlund said conversion to hydrogen energy may be slower in the United States, Europe and other areas that already have extensive energy systems based on fossil fuels, hydroelectric and nuclear power. “Eventually, we’ll get there, but right now our target market is providing backup power for cell towers and other communications equipment,” Edlund said. Methanol favored Schluter said there are two forms of alcohol that can be mixed with water to make hydrogen for fuel cells. One is methanol, which is produced throughout the world from readily available waste streams or from natural gas, and the other is ethanol, which is made from corn and other grains. While ethanol production has been pushed in the United States, and Oregon and some other states require an ethanolblended gasoline to be sold at gas stations, Schluter said ethanol has several downsides. It’s less efficient, more expensive to produce, and when corn and other grains are purchased to make ethanol, that has created global grain shortages. That drives up prices of feed grains paid by livestock producers, as well as the cost of grains grown for human consumption, he said. “For several reasons, ethanol from grains is less attractive for hydrogen,” Schluter said. “With methanol, we are converting garbage or waste into clean energy, so it’s better all the way around.” In the Northwest, where forest thinning is needed to clean up widespread forest health problems and reduce fire risk, Edlund said use of forest slash, also known as woody biomass, can be used to make wood alcohol for hydrogen-fueled fuel cells. The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Forest Service are funding several demonstration projects in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and other states where Edlund said researchers are building and testing gasification plants to find the best design for portable plants that can be hauled to forest thinning sites to make a wood alcohol from woody biomass. Here in the Northwest, where communities have been hit hard by the loss of timber jobs, there is a potential to grow a new industry making methanol for hydrogen fuel cells out of excess trees growing in the forests, but in a way that is self-sustaining, Edlund said. Ed Merriman can be reached at 541-617-7820 or at email@example.com.