Run Silent, Run Cheap

An innovative device developed at Kettering University promises to boost the use of fuel cells around the world.
1.21 GIGAWATTS: K. Joel Berry and his research team at Kettering University in Flint have developed the world’s first scalable and multifuel reforming system.

A team of researchers at Kettering University in Flint has developed a device, called a reformer, that converts gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and other commonly available fuels into hydrogen — the lifeblood of fuel cells.

By tapping existing energy sources, the so-called GEI-X5 HTPEM Fuel Cell Electric Power Generator (X5) provides efficient, clean, and near-zero emissions; runs nearly silent; and alleviates the need to set up a costly hydrogen distribution system. In essence, the X5 allows for the commercialization of stationary or auxiliary fuel cells around the world.

The effort is in response to a bid from the U.S. Air Force and Applied Research Associates, which tasked Kettering University with developing an advanced fuel cell generator that produces 10 kilowatts of power by 2012. In recent months, K. Joel Berry, a professor and head of Kettering’s department of mechanical engineering, has reached the 10-kilowatt mark; he says he and his team of researchers and consultants are on pace to more than double the prototype’s energy output.

“Our internal goal is to develop a 50-kilowatt fuel cell generator,” Berry says. “We have no doubt that we can reach that mark.” Berry, founder and principal of Global Energy Innovations Inc. in Flint, is actively raising $1.5 million to complete a series of field tests before the device reaches consumer markets.

The X5 is projected to cost between $8,000 and $10,000 per unit once it reaches mass production. All of the components are guaranteed for five years, while the overall system will carry a 10-year warranty.

“We are working closely with the Air Force and Applied Research Associates, while at the same time we’re actively seeking partners to commercialize and market the new technology,” Berry says. “The biggest growth potential for the X5 is in developing countries that lack, or have a limited, electrical grid system.”

Other markets include existing homes, since the reformer can run on natural gas, as well as industries such as aerospace, municipal waste-to-power systems, emergency response, and telecommunications. “This is not a technology that will be introduced overnight, but the reformer boosts energy efficiency by 30 percent while producing near-zero emissions,” says Steve Hoffman, a former marketing executive at Detroit-based American Axle & Manufacturing Inc., who serves as vice president of operations at Global Energy Innovations.

The reformer, about the size of a large shoebox, is complemented by a lithium polymer battery storage system and a power electronics package that, together, provide a uniform source of energy to operate a hydrogen fuel cell. Since a fuel cell has no moving parts, the X5 creates very little noise; however, because the reformer throws off excessive heat, it requires plenty of insulation.

“By running virtually silent, the X5 is an improvement upon traditional generators,” Berry says. “You could drop a unit into a remote location, say in Afghanistan, and the troops would have power to operate air conditioners, computers, lights, and equipment.”

The X5 can also be modified to propel vehicles, adding to its potential uses. In recent years, the Department of Defense has accelerated its use of renewable energy. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, insurgents are increasingly attacking American fuel supply convoys. At the same time, more efficient fuel systems are needed as battle vehicles are outfitted with heavier armor.

Because fossil fuel is the U.S. military’s largest import to Afghanistan, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says he wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. Meanwhile, the Army buys 50,000 auxiliary power units each year.

The X5 can process military fuel, known as JP8. It also can run on methanol, ethanol, synthetic, and bio-renewable fuels. “The failure rate is very small, so once we get it on the market, the X5 will have a life span of 18,000 to 20,000 hours,” Berry explained during a recent tour of Kettering’s Center for Fuel Cell Systems and Powertrain Integration. Founded in 1926 as the General Motors Institute, Kettering University (renamed in 1999 to honor famed GM engineer and inventor Charles “Boss” Kettering) graduates more than 500 engineers annually. The university also works with more than 700 companies, including the Big Three automakers, Delphi, United Technologies, the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), Bosch, Johnson Controls, and Sun Microsystems.

“Our goal is keep as much of the research, development, and production in Michigan,” Berry says. “We have the world’s only scalable and multifuel reforming system. We want to create as many jobs here as possible.”