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Back to the future in fuel cells: A talk with pioneer Peter Lehman

April 19, 2011

Category: A Closer Look

On paper and in animations, fuel cells can appear pretty simple. Putting them to work – in power plants, cars, planes and maybe even handheld electronics someday – is trickier.  In their labs and offices, the California State University scientists, engineers, administrators and students pushing the research, development and implementation of fuel cells face many challenges – relating to electrochemistry, supply and demand, society and infrastructure, the market and, of course, policy and politics.

Yet, with visions of a much more sustainable society, they navigate through them to create clean power, spawn innovation, and train a legion of enlightened energy professionals.

Peter Lehman, a professor of environmental resources engineering at Humboldt State University, has directed Humboldt’s Schatz Energy Research Center (SERC) since it was established 1989. Blazing technological trails with his colleagues, he’s overseen solar-hydrogen projects, fuel cell design innovations, vehicle designs, remote mountaintop installations, patent applications, licensing agreements, outreach to local schools and international research liaisons. He knows the sound of an on-coming fuel-cell bus.

“It’s amazing how much progress has been made with fuel-cell vehicles, especially the buses,” he says. “They’re so quiet, all you hear is the tire noise; and on a smooth road that’s nothing.”

That’s why – to alert pedestrians, waiting bus patrons, and other drivers – transit systems have put bells on their fuel-cell buses, Lehman says. Here’s more of what he’s learned over the years:

On fuel-cell vehicles:

“In cities, buses go where poor people live. It’s a social-justice issue; and fuel-cell buses are clean.”

SERC engineers serve as consultants to the East Bay’s AC Transit System, which has the largest fuel-cell bus system in the world, Lehman says. “We helped plan and design the fueling stations, and we helped shepherd plans through the regulatory/review process.”

Peter Lehman (front and left of center) and the crew of the Schatz Energy Research Center.“We put the first (fuel-cell) car on the road in America. It was clunky compared to what’s out there today, but it worked pretty darn well, ran smoothly. The new ones, though, are amazing.”  (The lab has a new Toyota Highlander SUV, which it fuels at a hydrogen station built by SERC on the Humboldt campus.)

“We’re not building fuel-cell vehicles anymore. We were pioneers, but our role is over. Honda and Toyota and other companies are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into it.”

On hydrogen from solar:

SERC’s first major contribution to fuel-cell technology was the design and construction of a solar-hydrogen demonstration project – using solar photovoltaic panels to power the electrolysis of water, then using the resultant hydrogen to power fuel cells to generate electricity – even after the sun had gone down.

“At the time (1989), it was a radical idea. It’s not the best way to store solar energy if you want it back as electricity, but it’s a very good way if you want to make a vehicle fuel – hydrogen. Using renewable energy to generate hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles is going to be part of our energy future.”

On visitors to the lab:

Lehman likes to tell the long-ago story of a delegation of Honda engineers from Japan visiting SERC when the lab was in an old converted hospital adjacent to campus. After hours of touring the make-do operation and asking many technical questions, the visitors huddled briefly.

Says Lehman, “Then their leader approached me and said: ‘We have been talking. You have accomplished much with little.’ It was the best compliment.”

(For “A Closer Look” at fuel cells throughout the CSU – in power plants, research, design projects and other realms – see the post Once sent to the moon, fuel cells rising in the CSU.”)

— Sean Kearns

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