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.


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.

RePower Humboldt: Biomass-Fired Fuel Cell Power System

The 175 kW biomass-fired fuel cell power system being installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria is nearly complete. The Proton Power gasifier has been installed and gone through initial start-up procedures, including heating up the gasifier to temperature and running the flare. The gas compression system (rotary claw compressor, syngas ballast tank, and reciprocating compressor) has been tested and the control strategy has been confirmed. The Xebec pressure swing adsorption (PSA) hydrogen purifier is installed and ready for testing, and the Ballard PEM fuel cell is in place and has undergone pre-commissioning. Most of the peripheral systems (biomass feed, control, fire alarm and life safety, cooling, and ventilation) are complete or very near completion. Our next steps will be to obtain a fuel with a moisture content no greater than 40% (wet basis); begin making syngas; test and confirm syngas quality; and then fully commission the PSA and fuel cell system, as well as the fully integrated system. We submitted a draft final report to the CEC in March, but work on the system will continue over the next few months until we achieve full system operation and performance testing. Following these activities a revised final report will be submitted.

The Proton Power biomass gasifier installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria.

The Proton Power biomass gasifier installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria.

Helping California Pursue Greenhouse Gas Reductions in the Transportation Sector

The State of California has set ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions:  a reduction to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), 28% of the State’s total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to light-duty passenger vehicles. Understandably, the State has placed significant focus on reducing emissions in the transportation sector, with a key strategy being the widespread deployment of zero emission vehicles (ZEVs). This includes both plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCVs), two technology areas where SERC has significant expertise.

As part of their policy analyses, CARB staff estimated that ZEV market penetration levels over the next three decades will need to reach dramatic levels in order for us to reach our greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. The figure below depicts a scenario where FCVs and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) make up a whopping 87% of the light duty auto fleet in 2050, with the remainder of the fleet being composed of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), and conventional vehicles.

Target Market Penetration Levels for Passenger Vehicles

State sponsored efforts to encourage and even require the widespread deployment of ZEVs include regulations requiring auto manufactures to sell a minimum number of ZEVs in the State; consumer rebates for ZEV purchases; funding to support local planning for ZEVs and associated fueling infrastructure; and funding to support the installation of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and hydrogen fueling stations.

Many of SERC’s projects over the last two decades have supported these efforts. In the early days (circa 1990), SERC developed a small fleet of FCVs and a hydrogen fueling station for SunLine Transit in Thousand Palms, CA. Later SERC provided technical support for AC Transit’s fuel cell bus program, and delivered hydrogen safety trainings for emergency first responders for FCV projects around the country. SERC designed and installed a hydrogen fueling station at Humboldt State University, which has enabled SERC to operate, test, and demonstrate a Toyota Highlander FCV for the last five years.

Participants check out EVs like this Nissan Leaf at the Upstate EV101 workshop in Redding, CA.

Participants check out EVs like this Nissan Leaf at the Upstate EV101 workshop in Redding, CA.

In the last few years, SERC has been involved in several California Energy Commission funded projects to support the deployment of ZEVs. These efforts have included Plug-In Electric Vehicle Readiness projects for the North Coast region (Humboldt, Trinity, and Del Norte counties) and the Upstate region (Shasta, Siskiyou, and Tehama counties). These two projects featured the development of plans to install EV charging stations throughout these regions. SERC’s work in these locales continues as we identify additional locations for EV charging stations and support the design and installation of many of these stations. In addition, we are working on a project to assess the opportunities and barriers associated with deployment of a wide array of alternative fuel vehicles in the North Coast region. This includes not only EVs and FCVs, but also biofuel and natural gas fueled vehicles.

SERC has also recently partnered with the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley and others to establish the Northern California Center for Alternative Transportation Fuels and Advanced Vehicle Technologies (NorthCAT).  NorthCAT will focus on education, training, demonstration, and deployment of alternative transportation fuels and advanced vehicle technologies in the Northern California region.

Watch future newsletters for updates on these projects as SERC continues to help the north state region move toward a low-carbon, sustainable transportation future.

RePower Humboldt: BLR Biomass to Energy Project

The design and procurement phases of the BLR Biomass to Energy Project are in full swing and the project team is involved in a flurry of activity. A group of engineers from SERC, as well as staff from Serraga Energy, LLC at the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) project site, are meeting weekly to discuss design decisions and move the effort forward. Frequent interactions are also taking place with our technology partners: Proton Power (gasifier), Xebec Adsorption (PSA gas cleanup unit), and Ballard Power Systems (fuel cell). Below is a list of key activities currently underway:

  • site layout is largely completed
  • fire marshal review – first phase is complete
  • site work has begun and will ramp up significantly over the next few weeks
  • gasifier is being fabricated – witness testing will occur in late July with delivery in August
  • PSA design and fabrication are underway – delivery is expected in late August
  • syngas compressor requirements have been specified and quotes have been obtained – orders will be placed in the next couple of weeks
  • fuel cell is on site – installation is slated for July or August
  • central control and monitoring system – design is underway
  • ventilation system – design analysis is underway
  • fuel storage and processing – design is underway
  • electrical service (auxiliary power supply and fuel cell generator/utility interconnection) – electrical engineer and contractor team are working on design, procurement, and the utility interconnect application with Pacific Gas & Electric
BLR site photo

Neil Harris (far right) with electrical and construction experts implementing site design at Blue Lake Rancheria. Photo credit Serraga Energy, LLC.

The next phases of the project will include component installation (summer and early fall 2014), system integration and commissioning (fall 2014), and system operation, data collection, analysis and reporting (late fall and winter 2014/15). Stay tuned for additional updates in upcoming newsletters.

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.


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!”


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.

RePower Humboldt Update

Dana Boudreau of RCEA displays air flow measuring equipment that will be used in the heat pump study.

Dana Boudreau of RCEA displays air flow measuring equipment that will be used in the heat pump study.

Numerous SERC staff are busy working on the RePower Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy project. Most of our recent efforts have been focused on the design of the biomass gasification to fuel cell project at the Blue Lake Rancheria.  We also met recently with Redwood Coast Energy Authority staff at the Blue Lake Elementary School to scope out the installation and testing of a mini-split heat pump system.  The RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan indicated that use of heat pumps could be a cost effective way to utilize local renewable energy resources to meet heating demands while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  However, heat pump performance can vary significantly in different climates, so the strategic plan recommended conducting a heat pump pilot study to examine performance characteristics in the Humboldt climate.  Blue Lake Elementary will receive one or two heat pump systems to be installed in individual classrooms. These systems will be equipped with monitoring instruments. At the same time, we will measure the energy consumption and performance of the small natural gas furnaces that currently provide heat to these classrooms. This will allow us to evaluate the energy efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and greenhouse gas impacts associated with the heat pump systems compared to conventional heating systems. This information can then be used to inform decisions about the potential future installation of heat pump systems throughout the county.

BLR Biomass Project

A key element of our RePower Humboldt vision is to use the county’s extensive biomass resource to produce electricity for local consumption. The goal of the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) Biomass Project is to do just that. We plan to gasify redwood sawdust from our mills, use it to produce hydrogen fuel for a fuel cell, and generate electricity for BLR’s hotel and casino complex. The system will be the first of its kind.

The project has a short timeline and we have a tremendous amount of work to accomplish before the March 31, 2015 project end date. Thankfully, we are making good progress and we see a successful path forward.

The key stages of the BLR project include system design, equipment procurement, installation, start-up and commissioning, testing and evaluation, and final reporting.  We are currently in the design phase. Before finalizing the selection of major system components we need to pin down the composition of the syngas (“syngas” is short for synthetic gas and refers to the gas that comes from the gasifier when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen). We are now working with project partner Proton Power, Inc., the gasifier manufacturer, to have their syngas tested. The test will be performed by a third party vendor, the Shaw Group (recently acquired by Chicago Bridge and Iron Works, or CB&I).

We expect the gas to be predominantly hydrogen with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide impurities. Hydrogen is the fuel that will power the fuel cell. Carbon monoxide is detrimental to fuel cell operation and must be removed.  The gas will be cleaned up to a purity of greater than 99.9% hydrogen using a pressure swing adsorption unit, or PSA.  We are working with project partner Xebec Adsorption, Inc. to design and provide a PSA that will meet our requirements.

Once we know the syngas composition, we will also be able to specify other key components, including gas compressors and buffer storage tanks needed in the system. The final component in the system, the fuel cell generator, has already been purchased by the Rancheria and is sitting on their property.  It is a 175-kW Ballard ClearGen™ fuel cell. Over the next 15 months we will be very busy working to complete this project, and we will be sure to take a few moments each quarter to up-date you on our progress. It’s exciting to be working on this state-of-the-art energy system right here in our backyard.

SERC Presents “Fuel Up with Hydrogen” Workshop for GATE Academy

GATE Academy students use a hydrogen fuel cell to power a fan and pass a flaming splint over a test tube to test for hydrogen gas.

GATE Academy students use a hydrogen fuel cell to power a fan and pass a flaming splint over a test tube to test for hydrogen gas.

Every January, local K-8 students converge on HSU for the annual GATE Academy. This event, coordinated by the Humboldt County Office of Education’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Program, provides GATE students with exciting learning opportunities not typically found in the classroom. SERC has participated in the GATE Academy since 2005.

This year, SERC docents Greg Pfotenhauer and Yaad Rana led 6th-8th grade students through an engaging and interactive hydrogen fuel cell lab activity. Using HyTEC equipment, students electrolyzed water to produce hydrogen fuel. They then used this hydrogen to run a fuel cell and operate a small fan. The lab activity began with a brief introduction to hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells, and the role hydrogen may play in our energy future. To bring the topic of hydrogen fuel out of the lab and into the real world, the workshop culminated in a tour of the HSU Hydrogen Fueling Station and Toyota FCHV-adv fuel cell vehicle.


RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy


In March of this year, along with our partner, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), we completed the three-year RePower Humboldt project funded by the California Energy Commission (CEC). A key deliverable, the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan, identified future energy scenarios for Humboldt County in which local renewable energy resources could provide over 75 percent of local electricity needs and a significant portion of heating and transportation energy needs by 2030. The plan pinpoints biomass and wind energy as key resources. In addition, large-scale adoption of plug-in electric vehicles and heat pumps was found to be critical to the cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the RePower Humboldt team is looking for opportunities to put the plan into action.

At our final project review meeting in Sacramento, CEC project manager Mike Sokol mentioned how impressed the CEC has been with the quality of our work. Now they have backed up this praise with a proposed award to begin implementing the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan.  The follow-on grant, a $1.75 million award, again partners SERC with RCEA and also includes the Blue Lake Rancheria as a new project partner. Our proposal was ranked third among 30 submissions and was one of only four awards in our research area.

The new project, called Repowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy, is expected to begin in June of 2013 and will run through March of 2015. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate and validate key aspects of the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan.  The project will include two main elements: SERC will lead the design and installation of a first-of-its-kind woody biomass gasifier and fuel cell power system, and RCEA will implement a community-based energy upgrade program.

The biomass energy system will be installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria casino and hotel where it will supply about a third of the electric power needs. It will feature a Proton Power gasifier that turns sawdust-sized woody biomass into hydrogen fuel, and a 175-kW Ballard fuel cell that generates electricity from hydrogen. Waste heat from the system will be used to meet hot water needs. We aim to achieve a biomass-to-electricity efficiency double that of a comparable-scale, conventional steam power plant. If successful, this project could open up a new market for distributed-scale, biomass combined heat and power systems.

The energy upgrade component will focus on services for residences and businesses in the Mad River valley community (City of Blue Lake, Blue Lake Rancheria, and surrounding areas), including energy efficiency, solar energy systems, heat pumps, and the installation of two electric vehicle charging stations. This energy upgrade will demonstrate a comprehensive, community-based energy services model that can be replicated throughout the state.

The RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy project is an exciting effort that will help move Humboldt County toward a secure energy future. Watch for updates in future newsletters as the project unfolds.

All project documents for the RePower Humboldt project, including the strategic plan, a regulatory and policy guide on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and other technical reports and memos can be accessed on SERC’s web page here.

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen (wave) and Bin vim Garten (vehicle).

HSU Hydrogen Fueling Station Upgrade

SERC Engineers Greg Chapman (left) and Mark Rocheleau with the new 700 bar compressor.

SERC Engineers Greg Chapman (left) and Mark Rocheleau with the new 700 bar compressor. (Photo credit Andrea Alstone.)

SERC is now beginning the construction phase of our hydrogen station upgrade project.  When it’s complete, the upgrade will allow us to completely fill our Toyota fuel cell car with 6 kg of hydrogen.  That will give us a 400-mile range, enough to travel to the Bay Area or Sacramento and back.

The new 700 bar compressor has arrived and the on-site work for the fueling station upgrade is in progress. The extension to the east block wall is complete and our design has been reviewed and approved by an independent engineer with experience in hydrogen systems. In the coming weeks the compressor will be moved to its final location (no small task) and plumbing and electrical work can begin. We’re excited to see the upgrade taking shape; stay tuned for more updates.