Stack in the Box
Science and CSU

Once sent to the moon, fuel cells rising in the CSU



Stack in the Box

‘Clean-energy,’ hydrogen projects

fuel power plants and vehicles,

foster research and learning

NASA sent fuel cells to the moon and back to provide Apollo spacecrafts “clean” electricity and, for astronauts, the handy byproduct of pure water.

In the decades since, pioneering faculty and students in the California State University have sent fuel cells around the block and into the sky, as power sources for innovative street vehicles at Humboldt State University and for unmanned aircraft at California State University, Los Angeles.

And at CSU Northridge, a 1-megawatt fuel-cell power plant generates Inside the fuel-cell power plant at CSU Northridgeelectricity for university facilities – and cogenerates surplus heat to warm buildings and to heat water for various uses (including the swimming pool). Other byproducts support a simulated sub-tropical rainforest. (A 1 Mw plant can provide power for about 1,200 average homes in the U.S.)

These and other research, education, outreach and energy-infrastructure projects in the CSU are advancing the use of fuel cells as a viable source of clean energy for a range of purposes, from a hypothetical apartment complex in Santa Monica to an emerging research institute in the United Arab Emirates.

What’s a fuel cell?

Here are some answers from Humboldt State’s Schatz Energy Research Center, where faculty and student researchers have been at designing and refining fuel cells for more than two decades:

“A fuel cell is an electrochemical engine that converts the chemical energy of a fuel directly to electricity. Almost always the fuel is hydrogen or a hydrogen-rich gas mixture. The fuel cell reaction is:

Hydrogen + Oxygen (from the air) –> Electricity + Water + Heat

SERC research engineer Marc Marshall designed an animation to show the flow (click on image below to view it):

Still shot from animation that shows passage of hydrogen through fuel cell  

Power at CSU Northridge

Five years ago, the CSU Board of Trustees approved the construction of a 1.4-megawatt fuel-cell power plant at CSU Northridge. When its switch was first flipped, in November 2007, it was the largest fuel-cell power plant at any university in the world.

(Its process begins with an input flow of natural gas mixed with a constant injection of water. From the reformed molecular mix comes hydrogen gas to feed the fuel cell. The outputs: water, electricity, and very hot air in the form of carbon dioxide.)

Rain forest next to CSU Northridge fuel-cell facility. 

Then CSU Northridge established a simulated outdoor subtropical rainforest next to the facility. The forest draws nearly 100 percent of the wastewater from the fuel cells’ operation. It also absorbs carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – from the power plant, providing a site for studying how trees – through photosynthesis – sequester CO2.

Three other CSU campuses – East Bay, San Bernardino and San Francisco – are on track to install similar 1.4 Mw power plants on their campuses over the next two years. San Francisco State is also hosting a 200-kilowatt solid-oxide fuel cell, a technology that requires less water and emits much less heat.

According to CSU Chief of Plant, Energy and Utilities Len Pettis, these three new systems are joint ventures between the California Public Utilities Commission; the utilities, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric; and the campuses. Connected to the grid, the power plants will be owned and operated by the utilities during the 10-year project.

The campuses will serve as hosts, incorporating educational opportunities and demonstrating the technology to the broader public while using the waste heat in cogeneration systems and the excess water for irrigation, Pettis said.

Research on renewable hydrogen

More than 20 years ago, the Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC) at Humboldt State launched its solar hydrogen project.

Diagram of solar-hydrogen fuel cell system at Humboldt State's marine lab. 

Still running, it demonstrates that hydrogen generated by the electrolysis of water, in a process powered by solar photovoltaic panels, can be fed to fuel cells to create electricity. As a result, the creation of hydrogen fuel is powered by renewable solar energy, and the only byproduct is water.

In the decades since, SERC and other research labs have developed renewable hydrogen-generating stations powered by wind and sunlight.

(For some fuel-cell lessons learned at SERC, see ‘Back to the Future: A talk with Peter Lehman.”)

Working with the City of Palm Desert, SERC engineers developed a solar-hydrogen project that uses a 16.2 kW solar array to power electrolysis to generate hydrogen to fuel a fleet of fuel-cell powered vehicles.

Hydrogen gets rolling

Hydrogen refueling station and fuel-cell vehicle at Humboldt State. 

Humboldt’s Schatz Lab also developed several fuel-cell powered vehicles – including in the late 1990s the first street-legal one in the United States – a cherry-red, pint-sized neighborhood electric vehicle, a coupe between the size of a golf cart and VW bug.

In 2008, as the fruition of a student-conceived plan that won a National Hydrogen Association design award, Humboldt installed the first rural hydrogen-fueling station in California. The university currently has two fuel-cell Toyotas in its fleet, a Highlander and a Prius.

Hydrogen gets flying

Flight crew readies Cal State L.A.'s fuel-cell plane for its second flight. 

With a successful flight test in August 2006, engineers and students at Cal State L.A.’s Multidisciplinary Flight Dynamics and Control Laboratory (MFDCLab) showed that an unmanned aircraft (with an 18-foot wing span) could be powered with a fuel cell – becoming only the second university in the country to accomplish the feat.

Conducted the Apollo Radio Control Airfield in Van Nuys, those early two-minute flights were captured on video (click to see third test) and made the news (click to see KABC footage).

Going small, very small

At Cal State L.A.’s Center for Energy and Sustainability, researchers adept at using microfluidics are working to develop miniaturized fuel cells powered by methanol. Such cells might someday power small portable electronic devices. Fuel cells can potentially provide five to 10 times more energy per volume than rechargeable batteries.

(According to Cal State L.A. Chemistry Professor Frank Gomez, who’s experienced in the realm, “Microfluidics is the technology of manipulating fluids typically on the sub-milliliter scale with high-precision and accuracy on small lab-on-a-chip systems. The field lies at the interfaces between chemistry, engineering, biology and physics; and it has resulted in the development of a myriad of applications due to its small sample requirements, low production costs, fast sampling times and potential for massively-parallel and high-throughput biochemical analyses.”)

Outreach, education and home

Humboldt State and Cal State L.A., are among five universities nationwide to be selected to develop fuel-cell curricula by the Department of Energy in an effort to advance awareness, understanding and new discoveries about fuel cells and hydrogen.

Indeed, a student team from Cal State L.A. earned distinction for its hydrogen home-fueling station design in a major student design competition, placing seventh among 54 teams from 19 countries.

Drawing of residential hydrogen-fueling station project. 

The design employs the same concept demonstrated 20 years ago at Humboldt: using solar-powered electrolysis of water to generate hydrogen. Designed for a Santa Monica apartment complex, it would also store rainwater to feed to the process, achieve a projected savings of $700 per year in fuel and an 18 percent reduction of carbon emission.

Humboldt’s Schatz Lab, meanwhile, announced last week an agreement to build a research-grade fuel-cell test station for the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, an emerging graduate university focused on energy studies, 12 time zones and half a world away from California.

— Sean Kearns