Fueling the future

“The age of the steam engine is coming to an end, and it’s being replaced by a fuel cell.”

— UNC-A environmental-studies professor Rick Maas

It’s more than 200 years since the Industrial Revolution launched its machine-based retooling of human societies, yet our high-tech gadgetry is still mostly dependent on the steam engine. That’s right — whether your local power plant splits atoms or burns fossil fuel, all it’s really doing is making heat that boils water to create steam, which sets a big magnet spinning in a copper coil to generate electricity. In the process, however, it wastes more energy than it produces, it devours whole mountains to get at a few months’ worth of coal or uranium, and its toxic excretions pollute the air or taint the earth with radioactive wastes.

But as the supply of fossil fuels dwindles, the reign of steam and smog is winding down. And its likely successor is not some as-yet-unknown technological miracle, but a device whose roots trace back almost as far as the technologies it may replace.

For nearly as long as fossil fuels have dominated the Industrial Age, a breed of highly efficient, practically pollution-free, energy-generating devices has been gradually evolving, like mammals among the dinosaurs, in little-noticed niches of our infrastructure. Now, however, the age of fuel cells is at hand — or so say two local alternative-energy proponents.

“They are coming really fast,” UNC-A environmental-studies professor Rick Maas told Mountain Xpress recently, “and they will be used both to run our cars and to generate energy for our buildings.” So fast, in fact, that “we’re probably about seven years from having a practical, competitively priced car [that’s powered by] a fuel cell. … Within 10 years, the fuel-cell car will take over the market, because it will be the most cost-effective car there is, whether you have any concern about the environment or not.”

Emergency-room physician Dr. Anthony Iacovelli, meanwhile, has patented five fuel-cell improvements that are based on the technology’s resemblance to human metabolism. And a Hendersonville company is perfecting automotive fuel-cell components that promise to replace today’s gas-guzzling piston-pushers with high-mileage hydrogen power.

In fact, Maas reports, long-standing technical obstacles involving fuel-cell size, cost and mobility are shrinking so much more rapidly than the auto industry had predicted that carmakers such as Honda and Toyota have put the brakes on their development of hybrid gas/electric vehicles, figuring that it’s no longer worth investing in what they see as a halfway step toward the fuel-cell-powered electric car of the future. Even President Bush called fuel-cell cars the “wave of the future” in a Feb. 25, 2002 speech (a theme he reiterated in his 2003 State of the Union address).

The turbulent transition

Still unsettled, however, is the question of how to provide the cells with the hydrogen they use to generate electricity. Current plans, Maas explains, call for preserving the existing infrastructure of corner gas stations by equipping cars with a device called a “reformulator.” You’d pump gasoline in the tank as you do now, and the reformulator would extract the hydrogen that’s in it. Your car would still be using fossil fuel, but so efficiently that you’d get 70-80 miles per gallon, with no emissions except water and CO<->2<-> — reducing both American dependence on foreign oil and the ground-level ozone pollution that fouls Appalachian skies, says Maas.

Porvair, a Hendersonville-based research facility that produces a variety of exotic fuel-cell-related products, ranging from “metal foam” to flow plates made of a material called “graphite loaf.” The company recently won a lucrative contract with Nissan by developing a production process that reduces the cost of these plates from $300 to $2 apiece. President Jim Stike expects to have a new production facility and a $400 million business by 2005 — up from $1.5 million in 2002, and $3.5 million in the first half of this year.

Maas, however, while praising Porvair’s innovations, thinks those who insist on deriving hydrogen from gasoline are “off on the wrong tangent.” Natural gas, he notes, is a much more efficient source of hydrogen, and it’s already being piped right into many people’s homes and businesses. In less than seven years, he believes, people could have reformulators in their garages that would convert natural gas to hydrogen — some of which would feed a large fuel cell that would power your house, with the rest pumped into a pressurized tank in your car.

Even natural gas, however, would be but a halfway step (it is, after all, another nonrenewable fossil fuel, like petroleum and coal). Ultimately, Maas envisions hydrogen lines running to every house. The utility companies wouldn’t need to go extinct. Instead, their new role in a hydrogen-dominated infrastructure would be to generate hydrogen through electrolysis (using electricity to split water into hydrogen).

But there is where old conflicts and controversies rear their dinosaur heads. Maas — along with European Union leaders — advocates using renewable sources (particularly wind power) to generate the electrical spark needed for electrolysis. U.S. lawmakers and Department of Energy officials, however, want to pour more than $2 billion into separate programs aimed at deriving hydrogen from a coal-burning power plant and a nuclear reactor, respectively. Jeremy Rifkin, the author of The Hydrogen Economy (J. P. Tarcher, 2002) and an adviser to the E.U. on hydrogen issues, dismisses the Bush administration’s hydrogen initiative as “a Trojan horse” for the nuclear and fossil-fuel industries.

Others, however, see problems with hydrogen itself as a fuel. The gas that floated the Hindenburg is highly flammable — and you can’t even see it burning. There’s a broom stuck in the fence surrounding the big hydrogen tanks that loom behind Porvair, for example. The gas supplier who fills the tanks grabs it and sweeps it around as he approaches the tanks; the only way he can tell if there’s a hydrogen fire is to see if the broom ignites. (Maas, however, counters that gasoline, though easier to see, is no less flammable.) Hydrogen also makes metal brittle, and it readily escapes through even microscopic cracks. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology recently warned that if hydrogen entirely replaced fossil fuels, up to 20 percent of it would leak into the atmosphere, further depleting the Earth’s ozone layer.

Local doctor invents fuel cell inspired by human cells

Tony Iacovelli’s research, meanwhile, has taken him in some fundamentally different directions — and he says he’s found some cures for what ails fuel cells. “The challenges that they’re facing in the fuel-cell industry have already been solved, and they’re lying all around us,” he proclaims. “They’ve been solved in nature’s elegance.”

By day, Iacovelli works at Haywood Community Hospital. By night, he’s an inventor and entrepreneur whose fuel-cell patents were inspired by the workings of the human bodies he strives as a doctor to repair and maintain.

“Ten years ago, when I was studying [fuel cells] as a technology, I suddenly started recognizing things that were coming from my medical education,” said Iacovelli during a tour of the spare workbench laboratory in the basement of his north Asheville home. On his computer, he called up two pictures — one of the porous polymer that’s the mold on which many fuel cells’ catalysts are formed, the other of the spongelike “cancellous tissue” found in the middle of our bones. It was impossible to tell the two apart.

There’s no end to the similarities, Iacovelli maintains, between the way fuel cells generate heat and electricity and the way the human metabolism accomplishes the same thing.

“Fuel cells breathe in oxygen. They breathe out carbon dioxide. [Human cells] get that carbon dioxide by breaking down sugars, proteins, etc. to carbon dioxide. That’s what a fuel cell does, too. It can break down sugars, it can break down petroleum products, etc. [Fuel cells] have body heat. They have to have thermal management to keep that body heat in a proper range; otherwise, they don’t run well. They get fever, they don’t run as well; if they get chilled, they get hypothermic. Fuel cells can be poisoned in similar ways by similar poisons that we are poisoned by,” such as sulfur and carbon-monoxide impurities in their fuel.

“Many of our industrial advances are based on biomimicry,” observes Iacovelli, the founder and president of Altom LLC, a company he’s formed to build a prototype of his fuel cell.

For example, he’s figured out a way to let fuel cells sweat.

“All day long, I’m testing people’s electrolytes. And [our bodies] have systems to keep them in balance. Well, fuel cells have systems to keep them in balance. Unfortunately, they’re very expensive … parasitic and require maintenance, and they’re very bulky. Borrowing from nature’s intrinsic synergies and using off-the-shelf technologies from a variety of things (including dialysis machines), I’ve come up with a very simple device that manages the electrolytes, handles the water balance, and does the thermal regulation in an analogous fashion to the way our bodies do it. It’s modeled in part on dialysis, and on respiration and transpiration — sweating.”

Most fuel-cell designs use expensive, mining-intensive platinum as the catalyst for their hydrogen/oxygen reaction. Iacovelli’s design cuts the amount of platinum needed by 90 percent — bringing the cost of an individual fuel cell down to an economically practical range, he says.

Iacovelli’s design is a different species of fuel cell than the conventional hydrogen variety. He uses what’s called an alkaline fuel cell — a less-explored type that can run on what amounts to alcohol mixed with an antacid. He demonstrated with a jigger of Bacardi, a dose of Mylanta, a few drops of water — and a tumbler of scotch. The scotch was for the reporter; the rest of it he mixed together. And, dunking a couple of little square black electrodes in it, the physician/inventor activated an electric fan, which continued spinning merrily throughout the remainder of the interview.

The actual fuel cell would run on methanol, which Iacovelli believes is a better bet than straight hydrogen — in part because it can be produced from everyday agricultural and landfill waste, theoretically enabling whole communities to disconnect from the grid.

One key ingredient that’s needed to bring Iacovelli’s vision of the future to fruition, however, is money to develop a working prototype of his design. To that end, the inventor gave a public seminar on fuel cells on June 24, joining the series of green innovators and experts (including Maas and Stike) whom UBS PaineWebber eco-investment brokers Glenn Magley and Kale Olson have been presenting to the public to encourage environmentally savvy local investors and leaders to help back the shift to a more sustainable future. Judging by the packed audience at Iacovelli’s seminar (which included City Council candidates Brownie Newman and Dave Goree), the message is generating a growing spark of interest. (Former students of a course Iacovelli and Maas recently team-taught have founded a subscription Web site for fuel-cell investors and developers, www.topiainvetments.com.)

In Maas’ words: “The new technology is sweeping out the old. The age of the steam engine is coming to an end, and it’s being replaced by a fuel cell.

“People who are ready to get out in front of that wave are going to make a whole lot of money. People who don’t will lose their shirts.”

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