Montana State University

Fuel cell technology improving but not yet ready for prime time

June 4, 2003 -- by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Montana Sen. Conrad Burns looks at a prototype of a fuel cell at a recent workshop at MSU-Bozeman. (MSU photo by Jeannine Lintner)   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN--Fuel cells, those nondescript metallic boxes whose chemistry produces electricity, have improved significantly in the last decade but aren't yet ready for the widespread commercialization some promoters dream about.

That assessment came from a handful of government, university and industry spokespeople who gathered at Montana State University-Bozeman last weekend (May 31) for a short fuel cell workshop.

"It's a wonderful technology, but nobody can afford it," said Gary McVay of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

A kilowatt of energy from today's fuel cells costs about $3,000 to produce. To be cost effective, the price tag must be about $400 per kilowatt, he said.

McVay's lab and the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh are leading a national effort to meet that goal by 2010. MSU-Bozeman is involved through a new electrochemical engineering program funded by the Department of Interior. The $2.5 million in appropriations was approved for Montana through the efforts of Sen. Conrad Burns.

"I see Montana sitting right in the middle of energy conversion," McVay said. "We must have a strong technology base, and that's what we're doing at the university."

MSU offered its first class on fuel cells last fall and is one of just a few universities in the country putting together a curriculum on the topic, said Robert Marley, dean of the MSU College of Engineering. An entire workforce will need to be trained to design, implement and maintain fuel cells as the country moves toward this more efficient means of energy production, he said.

In addition, 11 MSU faculty and their students are researching solid oxide fuel cell materials and design. This type of fuel cell can operate on hydrogen or convert other fuels such as natural gas, coal-derived synthetic gas, gasoline or diesel into electrical energy.

The university is the first satellite research center for the Department of Energy's High-Temperature Electrochemistry Center, which is working toward creating highly efficient, pollution-free power plants by 2015.

It's also partnered with a Bozeman company--Arcomac--on developing highly conductive coatings that don't corrode in the cell's harsh chemical environment. And it's working with CTA Architects Engineers in Billings on a three-year project to study how and why failures occur in a type of hydrogen fuel cell called polymer membrane fuel cells.

"I think we're really on the verge of contributing to this [technology] nationwide," MSU chemistry professor Lee Spangler said of the Billings project. "It's a good project for university-style research."

Fuel cells are being heralded as the energy source of the future because their 40 percent efficiency is much higher than the 12 percent efficiency achieved from current power generation methods. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

McVay of Pacific Northwest Labs said developers envision eventual fuel cell applications in aircraft, in long-haul trucks and other vehicles, and in military field operations.

The fuel cell workshop, which involved about 25 people, was sponsored by MSU-Bozeman.

Contact: Lee Spangler, (406) 994-2891 or