A small Los Angeles company expects to test the commercial application of a state-of-the-art fuel cell-powered generator system based on LP gas within the next few months.
“We currently are talking to RV OEMs and looking for alliances with manufacturers who can provide some key assistance for us,” said Nick Ballinger, COO of Clean Fuel Generation LLC, a closely held company formed in 1998. “We will either develop the system in house or license the component development and outsource it.”
Ballinger said plans to initiate Beta testing of the system, which turns LP gas into hydrogen that in turn is converted into electricity, early in 2003. The system is expected to be available for commercial installation in RVs sometime in 2004.
“We have tested it, and it works,” Ballinger said. “Our technology eventually will replace the gasoline generator, the furnace and the hot water heater. On top of that, it will supplement holding tanks with fresh water.”
Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are not new.
Invented in 1839, they have been used by NASA to provide onboard electric power for space capsules since early in the space program. The automobile industry is heavily invested in developing fuel cells to power cars and trucks because the only byproduct produced by a fuel cell is water. Other companies are investigating fuel cells for use in homes and businesses.
In the fuel cell process hydrocarbons are “reformed” into hydrogen which is altered chemically to produce electricity.
The trick has been to safely and efficiently provide a source of hydrogen, either directly or through reformation of a hydrocarbon fuel.
Commercial applications also have been slow to develop because of the cost and the bulk of the equipment needed. “The costs are coming down, and we’ve got our fuel cell system down to about the size of a current RV generator,” Ballinger said.
Ballinger said Clean Fuel is working on fuel cells that will deliver between 2 kw to 20 kw “on demand” to provide 120-volt electricity to an RV to run air conditioners and appliances at a capital cost of about $1,500 per kw. “They are going to be pricey, but the benefits are going to be significant,” Ballinger said.
While any hydrocarbon fuel – gasoline, LP gas, natural gas or diesel – can be converted into electricity using a fuel cell, Clean Fuel has focused on LP gas because it is readily available in RVs. The company also is currently developing systems that operate on propane and methanol.
Besides generating electricity, fuel cells also produce heat and clean water that can be cycled through a trailer or motorhome.
Electrical generators fired by traditional fuels, Ballinger said, typically use only 15% of the energy available. “For the production of electricity on its own, the efficiency of our fuel cell is approximately 40%,” Ballinger said. “When you add the benefit of using the heat generated by the fuel cell for space heating or water heating, the efficiency goes up to 80%.
“The biggest benefit for the RV owner is that the systems are quiet. Fuel cells themselves have no moving parts and are extremely quiet.”
Other firms involved in cell-fuel for RV applications are: Atwood Mobile Products, Rockford, Ill., which teamed with fuel-cell developer IdaTech, Bend, Ore.; the Cummins Inc. Onan subsidiary, which is working with McDermott Technology, Alliance, Ohio; and Coleman Powermate, a unit of camping equipment manufacturer The Coleman Company Inc., Wichita, Kan., a Sunbeam Corp. subsidiary.