SERC Delivers Fuel Cell Test Station to Purdue University

In early December, Marc Marshall and I travelled to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana to install and train staff in the use of SERC’s first combined heat and power (CHP) fuel cell test station. CHP is also known as cogeneration. As reported in our Summer 2015 newsletter, the station was custom built for Professor Neera Jain in Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering.

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Left to right: Greg Chapman, Professor Neera Jain, graduate students Austin Nash and Rian Browne, and Marc Marshall pose with the newly installed test station.

The test station was designed so that Neera and her engineering students can study the electrical and thermal characteristics of this fuel cell cogeneration system in a simulated residential application. A Ballard fuel cell stack produces the electrical power while waste heat from the stack is transferred to a domestic hot water tank via the fuel cell cooling water system. Custom software allows the researchers to simulate the electrical and domestic hot water use typical of a single-family home. By measuring performance in various conditions, Neera and her students will be able to develop control algorithms to optimize system efficiency.

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Greg Chapman, project manager for the CHP fuel cell test station, poses with the newly installed test station.

Household fuel cell cogeneration systems have been field tested over the last few years and are making their way into the market, mainly in Japan and Germany. Panasonic launched its fourth generation fuel cell CHP model in 2015 and has installed over 10,000 units in Japan. Callux continues field-testing in Germany, and is targeting over 500 installed units by mid-2016. Both the Panasonic and Callux cogeneration systems convert natural gas to hydrogen in a reformer before supplying the fuel cell. It will be interesting to follow the progress of these high efficiency and reliable home energy systems as they enter the market.

Purdue Project Continues SERC’s Commitment to Technology Transfer

Continuing our long commitment to helping other universities get started in fuel cell research, SERC has recently begun working to build a fuel cell test station for Professor Neera Jain of Purdue University. As a new professor in Purdue’s School of Mechanical Engineering, Neera is establishing a research program to study the operation of a fuel cell co-generation system designed for a home. The fuel cell will provide almost all the electricity needed for the home, while the waste heat generated will be used to heat water and space, resulting in very high overall efficiency.

The test station will be fitted with a Ballard 2.4 kW, water-cooled fuel cell, a programmable electronic load, and three increasingly larger hot water tanks, each fitted with an internal heat exchanger. The cooling water from the stack will be piped to the tank’s exchanger to preheat water for domestic use. Custom software that we develop will enable Neera and her grad students to simulate electricity and hot water load profiles. By varying the profiles and operating conditions and measuring performance, Neera will be able to develop control algorithms for optimum efficiency.

This project with Neera and Purdue is the latest example of SERC’s involvement in technology transfer to other universities and schools. We’ve been doing similar work for almost two decades.

Christine Parra of SERC leads Merit Academy students through a calculation involving our first Stack-in-a-Box®. (1999)

Christine Parra of SERC leads Merit Academy students through a calculation involving our first Stack-in-a-Box®. (1999)

Our work started in 1998 when we were contacted by the Merit Academy, a small charter school near Santa Cruz. The school had obtained a DOE grant to study fuel cell technology and wanted hardware so their students could do experiments. This led to us developing our first Stack-in-a-Box® fuel cell educational tool. Merit students visited our lab and helped assemble the fuel cell and the next March, we delivered it to the school with an associated curriculum. We had lots of fun doing fuel cell calculations and making fuel cell powered milk shakes. Later, the students and their fuel cell travelled to Washington DC to explain hydrogen technology and make ice cream for amazed attendees at the National Hydrogen Association annual meeting.

SERCers Greg Chapman (left), Denise McKay (kneeling), and Antonio Reis (right) deliver our first fuel cell test station to Professor Anna Stefanopoulou (standing left of Denise) and two of her grad students in the Lay Automotive Lab at the University of Michigan. (2002)

SERCers Greg Chapman (left), Denise McKay (kneeling), and Antonio Reis (right) deliver our first fuel cell test station to Professor Anna Stefanopoulou (standing left of Denise) and two of her grad students in the Lay Automotive Lab at the University of Michigan. (2002)

We’ve continued to build Stack-in-a-Boxes®. They’ve gone to places far and wide—Smith College, Southwestern Community College in North Carolina, Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, SunLine Transit Agency, and we kept one ourselves. It continues to be a wonderful tool for teaching about hydrogen and fuel cell technology and to excite students about science.

That’s how we started; we then branched out into fuel cell test stations. Out of necessity as we developed our fuel cell program, we spent many years building and perfecting our test stations. When Professor Anna Stephanopoulou, director of the University of Michigan’s Lay Automotive Lab, called and inquired about a test station, we agreed to build her a custom station. In the summer of 2002, we travelled to Michigan, installed the station, and trained Anna and her grad students in its use.

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Richard Engel (left) and SERC Director Peter Lehman deliver a test station to UC Berkeley as part of the Hydrogen Energy in Engineering Education project. Also pictured are Professor Dan Kammen (right) and Tim Lipman of UC Berkeley. (2009)

Fast forward thirteen years. In addition to Michigan, our test stations are now in use at universities as diverse as Auburn, Kettering, and UC Berkeley. A few years ago, we reached an international audience when we built and installed a test station at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates.

Greg Chapman (left) trains Professor Tariq Shamim (center) and a grad student in the use of our test station at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates. (2011)

Greg Chapman (left) trains Professor Tariq Shamim (center) and a grad student in the use of our test station at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates. (2011)

Each of our stations has been customized and has presented us with new challenges and the opportunity to break new ground. The test station for Neera and Purdue is no exception. It is the first station we’ve built that will enable use of fuel cell waste heat and the first to use a commercial fuel cell, not one we’ve built ourselves. And as always, there are new design problems to overcome and new equipment to spec out and procure.

It’s been enjoyable working with Neera to design the station to exactly meet her research needs. We know we’re assisting a new faculty member in getting her research off the ground so that she can help solve important energy problems. It’s what makes our work so interesting and rewarding.

SERC to Celebrate Our 25th Anniversary

On the afternoon of Friday, May 16, Schatzers from far and wide will gather at Freshwater Park outside Eureka to commemorate the silver anniversary of the Schatz Energy Research Center. Catered food and general merriment will help us celebrate 25 years of clean and renewable energy work.

It all began with a phone call in May of 1989. Mr. Schatz called me up to ask questions about a proposal I had sent him to build a system to demonstrate using hydrogen to store solar energy. He had solicited ideas about hydrogen research from HSU and when I heard about the possibility, I sent him a proposal the next day.

Mr. Schatz didn’t waste words. He started the conversation by saying, “This is Mr. Schatz. You sent me a proposal. I have questions.” Our call lasted over an hour and when it was over, I suggested sending him a revised proposal based on our conversation. He agreed and I did. Less than two weeks later, a small envelope with a check for $75,000 appeared in my mailbox and the great adventure that has become the Schatz Center had begun.

The first thing I did was to knock on Charles Chamberlin’s door. Charles and I had collaborated on several projects before and I knew he was just the partner I needed. Our partnership has been a cornerstone for the lab ever since.

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Directors Peter Lehman and Charles Chamberlin pose in front of the Schatz Solar Hydrogen Project in 1995.

That first project, the Schatz Solar Hydrogen Project at HSU’s marine lab in Trinidad, turned out to be just the beginning. When the fuel cell we bought for the project didn’t work, Mr. Schatz told me, “Build your own.” So Charles and I wrote a proposal to build a fuel cell lab and begin work to develop our own fuel cell. Along came another small envelope, this time with a check for $300,000 and a small handwritten note that said, “Get to work!”

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Director Arne Jacobson with Charles and Peter at SERC’s 20th Anniversary party.

That experience led us to many more hydrogen projects and to many places. We introduced America’s first PEM fuel cell car and built the first hydrogen fueling station in the late 1990s, near Palm Springs in southern California. We built fuel cell power systems for remote use in Alaska and for a radio telephone system in Redwood National Park. We’ve installed fuel cell test stations in a number of universities, including most recently in Abu Dhabi. Four corporations have licensed our fuel cell patents, seeking to commercialize the technology.

Fast forward to today and our energy work has broadened considerably. We’re involved in developing standards for LED lighting products and in providing energy access in Africa and Asia. We’ve branched out into bioenergy, with projects to install a biomass-fired fuel cell power system here locally and another to characterize technologies such as biochar and torrefaction, in an effort to reduce the cost of getting energy rich biomass to market.  We’re also involved in helping to plan electric and alternative fuel infrastructure here in northern California and in India. It’s amazing how far we’ve come.

It’s the people at SERC who have made this happen. Over these 25 years, 145 people have contributed their efforts to our enterprise.  We’re lucky that one of them, Arne Jacobson, returned to SERC after getting his PhD to become our director and to lead our international work. Many more have gone on to interesting and important energy careers around the world.

We have much to celebrate as we look back over a quarter of a century. And we can be proud that we’re continuing our work to make this a greener planet.