Taking aim at the clean-energy holy grail: Turning water into fuel

Nihad Kaiseruddin, application sales engineer with PDC Machines, demonstrates the SimpleFuel device. The prototype uses electricity and water to produce high-purity hydrogen, which powers electric fuel-cell vehicles.

It’s not exactly alchemy, but something magical is taking place inside an 8-foot-tall steel box at a Bucks County industrial park: The humming SimpleFuel machine is converting water into clean hydrogen motor fuel.

Since September, a consortium of three companies has operated the device at PDC Machines Inc., an industrial manufacturer near Warminster. The prototype uses electricity and water to produce high-purity hydrogen, which powers electric fuel-cell vehicles.

Such vehicles, which produce only water-vapor emissions, are an elusive goal for clean-energy advocates. They can provide motorists with many of the conveniences of conventional gasoline vehicles, including long-range and quick refueling, that have been a challenge for plug-in electric vehicles.

“The aim is zero emissions with zero compromise,” said Kareem Afzal, vice president of business development for PDC Machines, which manufactures the gas compressors that are a critical part of the SimpleFuel device. “You can travel roughly the same distance as a gasoline vehicle, and be able to refuel in three to five minutes.”

In January, the U.S. Energy Department named the SimpleFuel machine the sole finalist for the $1 million prize in the H2 Refuel H-Prize Competition, which aims to incentivize American innovators to create a small hydrogen-generation system that could resolve the chicken-and-egg issue that has bedeviled hydrogen fuel technology.

“We believe this is the enabling technology to make fuel-cell vehicles the norm,” said Darryl Pollica, head of Ivys Energy Solutions of Waltham, Mass., the SimpleFuel project’s team leader.

The hydrogen production and dispensing machine is now undergoing a three-month evaluation by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to determine whether it meets the contest’s technical, cost, and safety criteria.

The SimpleFuel device will be on public display Wednesday at an open house at PDC’s plant on Stout Drive in Warwick Township, Bucks County, that includes a demonstration refueling of a Hyundai Tucson SUV that has been outfitted with a fuel-cell power system.

The SimpleFuel team says the device works because it marries conventional technology in a compact package. Much of the effort involved cramming the critical systems into an 8-foot-tall beige box fitted with a fuel nozzle.

“We wanted to make something that was approachable, that didn’t look like a chemical plant,” said Afzal. “We thought it was important that the shape looked cool.”

Hydrogen can be produced from electricity and water or a fuel like natural gas. The SimpleFuel team wanted to use electricity as the energy source because the system could potentially produce carbon-free fuel, if renewable solar or wind power were the energy source.

The refueling device, or appliance, as the team calls it, includes an electrolyzer that uses an electric current to convert water into oxygen and hydrogen gases. The oxygen is vented into the atmosphere, and the hydrogen is purified and stored under tremendous pressure in a carbon-fiber tank in the device.

The electrolysis technology was supplied by the consortium’s third partner, McPhy Energy North America, a subsidiary of a European hydrogen company.

The device can keep up to 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of hydrogen stored on board, sufficient to give a single 350-mile fill-up to a fuel-cell vehicle. In a vehicle, the hydrogen and air are mixed to create a chemical reaction in a fuel cell that generates electricity. The hydrogen is emitted as water vapor.

“This is kind of the holy grail of the hydrogen economy,” Pollica said.

Hydrogen is widely used in industrial applications, though in the public eye it was stigmatized by the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster. Afzal said the fuel-cell industry’s challenge will be to educate the public that hydrogen is safe.

PDC’s gas-compressor technology squeezes the hydrogen to about 10,000 pounds per square inch, the standard vehicle manufacturers want to achieve to keep the onboard fuel tank a manageable size.

PDC Machines was founded by Kareem’s father, Syed Afzal,  a chemical engineer who emigrated from Hyderabad, India, to attend Princeton University. He started his business in a garage, and it now employs 67 people at two plants in the Warwick Commons industrial park. It generates about $20 million in annual sales of gas compressors and other equipment to some of the world’s largest industrial producers,  Syed Afzal said.

“Our products are 100 percent made in U.S.A., and we’re proud of that,” said Syed Afzal, PDC's president. The company just received a three-year order to export 100 compressors to China to fill fleets of hydrogen-fueled buses and delivery trucks.

The Simple Fuel device will initially cost about $150,000 to $200,000 to produce - not economical for most individuals, but potentially attractive for groups of motorists or car-share businesses. Yet Syed Afzal said the hydrogen fuel business represents a potential breakthrough for PDC.

“Hopefully, in four to five years, our annual sales could grow to $60 million plus,” he said. PDC is talking with other machine shops to supply parts, and is looking to expand into a vacant property in the industrial park as a potential third plant.

If you go:

What: The SimpleFuel consortium will showcase its home hydrogen refueling appliance at an open house.
When: From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9.
Where: PDC Machines Plant 2, 1707 Stout Dr., Warminster.
Demo: The machine produces hydrogen from water and electricity for use in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. A refueling demonstration will take place at noon.