Mon, Mar

Wiscasset, Maine, Project Seeks to Produce Fuel Cells for Electricity

The Chewonki Foundation has started construction on a $240,000 demonstration project designed to use renewable energy to generate hydrogen and power fuel cells for electricity production.

Nov. 17—The Chewonki Foundation has started construction on a $240,000 demonstration project designed to use renewable energy to generate hydrogen and power fuel cells for electricity production.

The electricity will be used as a backup system at Chewonki's environmental education center in Wiscasset. The project is expected to be operating by late winter or early spring.

The project is one of many research efforts under way in the United States to develop what supporters call a hydrogen economy. A transition to hydrogen and away from oil, gas and coal is seen as a way to reduce the nation's dependence on imported energy, cut air pollution and limit emissions that contribute to global warming.

Maine, which is highly dependent on petroleum for space heat and transportation, could benefit by developing some early expertise in this evolving energy technology, supporters say.

Government and industry are spending millions of dollars to develop hydrogen technology, which can be used to power vehicles, run turbines or produce heat and electricity.

Chewonki's demonstration project will be the only one in New England using power from renewable resources to produce hydrogen, according to Peter Arnold, Chewonki's project coordinator. The power will come from hydroelectric and biomass plants that make up the so-called green electricity supply from Maine Renewable Energy. A rooftop solar-electric unit at Chewonki also will contribute some power.

The idea of powering the economy with clean energy has great appeal, but several obstacles exist. Hydrogen is relatively expensive to produce and it's difficult to store large quantities in small tanks. Commercial distribution systems don't exist, and the design of fuel cells, which change the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen directly to electricity and heat, is still evolving.

Chewonki's project is funded in part with a $120,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute. Several Maine businesses have contributed time or technical expertise to design the project, including OEST Associates in South Portland, Fire Risk Management in Bath, Result Engineering in Saco and Maine Oxy in Auburn.

Chewonki's system will use a device called an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen from water. The hydrogen will be stored in pressurized tanks until it's needed. Then it will flow into the fuel cells and produce electricity.

Although the system will only be used at first for demonstrations and for backup power in the event of an outage, the concept has wider applications, according to Arnold. Renewable energy from wind farms, hydro stations or biomass plants in Maine could be tapped to generate hydrogen. That hydrogen could be stored in tanks and moved to where it's needed for heat or transportation, just like gasoline or propane.

This concept is becoming a reality in some places.

Last week, Shell and General Motors opened a hydrogen refueling station in Washington, D.C., the first integrated gasoline/hydrogen station in North America. The demonstration project will be used to refuel General Motors' fuel cell vehicles participating in a federal Department of Energy project.

It will be the first station in a potential Washington, D.C.-to-New York "hydrogen corridor," where a string of stations can refuel hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Gary Higginbottom, executive director of the Hydrogen Energy Center in Portland, said his volunteer group has started talking to companies about a hydrogen production facility to fuel fleet transportation in Maine's largest city.

The idea is still in an early stage, he said, but projects like the one at Chewonki will help Maine develop some expertise in this emerging field. That could position the state to develop businesses that engineer and assemble hydrogen energy systems, Higginbottom said.

To see more of the Portland Press Herald, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.pressherald.com.

© 2004, Portland Press Herald, Maine. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.