Can you imagine what it would be like to be the first person in the world to flip a switch actuating what could become revolutionary technology? A switch powering a device that will assist in reducing our dependence on imported fuel while at the same time decreasing emissions into the universe?

Tom Shreves can.

Shreves, the owner of TS Electric in Richmond, Ohio, was selected by FuelCell Energy and Northwest Fuel Development Inc. to complete the installation of the first fuel cell in the world capable of converting coalbed methane to electricity. The fuel cell was dedicated and became operational at the site of the AEP Ohio Coal operation in Hopedale, Ohio, on Oct. 22, 2003. His firm was awarded the contract without competitive bidding on the basis of prior experience in the field that included successful installation of “engines Northwest Fuel Development had installed that were operating on methane to produce electricity,” Shreves said.

The project involved creating a footprint for the 28-foot-long cell, ditching, laying cable and installing switching systems to a new transformer. The power plant uses between 55,000 and 80,000 cubic feet of coal mine methane gas per day. The result: an increase in energy from 480 to 69,000V. In laymen’s terms, the converted methane is producing enough electricity to power an average of 40 homes.

Pretty exciting, huh?

Shreves is pleased with the outcome. “It was a straightforward project, and profitable, in an expanding industry. A project that has such important, far-reaching implications that we feel will make this country a better place for future generations to live.”

The installation of the cell may be only the tip of a monstrous technological iceberg that will add a new resource to the world’s energy needs while reducing emissions into the atmosphere that are contributing to a greenhouse affect.

It also demonstrates the ability of the U.S. government, private industry and the scientific community to work together toward producing what is projected as a 40 percent increase in the nation’s demand for energy by 2020.

Though a valuable commodity, methane is an environmental hazard that accounts for approximately one-third of the total emissions worldwide. It is the second major contributor to global warming, after carbon dioxide, with coal mine emissions accounting for approximately 10 percent of worldwide methane emissions. In the coal industry, methane is removed in advance of mining for safety reasons; during operations, to allow the infusion of fresh air; and, after mining operations have been completed and a mine sealed, via degasification systems or vents. In the United States, emissions are estimated to exceed 500 million cubic feet per day. In terms of the impact on global warming, emissions in the United States are the equivalent of 17.4 million automobiles emitting typical amounts of carbon dioxide. Of the 190 billion cubic feet liberated in the United States in 2001, 134 came from underground mining activities.

The good news

The good news is that U.S. mines recovered approximately 80 percent of the gas liberated through drainage systems, a 300 percent increase from 1990.

In a typical scenario, a mine owner pays a hauler to remove the methane, and the hauler then donates or sells the methane to an energy company that has a plant capable of converting the methane to power. Historically, the conversion has been with the use of methane-powered automobile engines.

Among the partners at the Hopeland site, Northwest Fuel Development was founded in 1979 as a research and development company promoting commercial applications for conversion processes.

Pete Soot, PhD., who represents NWF, has been working since the 1980s with Y and O Coal Co., former owner of the site, to secure the rights to extract the methane. The mine was closed, and pipes originally in place had either collapsed into the old tunnels, or were leaking methane into the atmosphere.

Soot estimates that “as much as 1 million cubic feet of methane was being released into the atmosphere, depending upon atmospheric and barometric conditions.” His first challenge, and the cause of delays which are universal in the field, was determining ownership of the methane rights. “That issue has greatly constrained progress in the field,” he said. He eventually succeeded in leasing the mining rights from the new owner, AEP Ohio Coal, the largest coal-fired utility in the United States.

In prior applications, NWF’s converted motors produced 750kW, enough to energize 500 homes, at a cost of $600 per kilowatt hour.

In comparison, FuelCell Energy, which has been in business for more than 30 years, is a publicly owned company that specializes in the development, manufacture and commercialization of fuel cells for stationary electric power generation. FuelCell Energy began developing fuel cell technology in the 1980s, but “discovered the need to generate higher temperatures for the process to be effective,” said Steve Eschbach, director of investor relations. The company met the challenge, as evidenced by successful installations around the globe. It presently has fuel cells converting wastewater treatment gas from a brewery in Tokyo, conversion from natural gas, conversion of synthesis gas from a coal gasification plant and the conversion of marine diesel fuel.

He said that a distinct advantage of a fuel cell is that “since fuel entering the cell is not burned, there is no pollution. The process generates more electric power from less fuel with less carbon dioxide emissions than traditional methods using combustion.

“Since coal is an abundant resource in the United States, it is a primary candidate as a fuel source. However, the current challenge is to reduce the cost of the cells because at the present, we’re providing low volume at a high cost,” he said.

Enter the DOE

Operating under the auspices of the Department of Energy, the mission of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, Office of Fossil Energy, also is a partner in the Hopeland project, to the tune of a $3.5 million contribution. The goal of NETL is to “implement a development program to resolve environment, supply and reliability constraints of producing and using fossil resources.”

A member of the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance formed by DOE, NETL is working with governmental agencies, private industry, and the scientific community toward a stated goal of “producing breakthrough fuel cells capable of shattering current cost barriers and moving the technology into homes, businesses, the transportation sector and the military by 2010.”

NETL Technical manager Mark Williams, who was project manager at Hopeland, said, “NETL’s role since 1992 has been to fund cost-reduction technology. This is a special project because it is the first of its type to capture methane gas from a coalbed. In the past 12 years NETL has invested $270 million on these types of projects.” In a typical scenario, the private sector contributes 20 to 70 percent of the cost of the project; at Hopeland, FuelCell Energy and NETL split the $7 million cost equally.

“Coalbed methane is an enormous resource,” Williams said, one that, “combined with coal mine methane, could produce 1 or 2 percent of the nation’s stationary electrical needs. It is unlikely that coal or natural gas will ever be replaced as the preeminent providers, however.”

The greatest challenge is increasing the efficiency of fuel cells by a factor of 10. “That is analogous to increasing the equivalent amount of horsepower in an automobile engine. Part of the process will include evaluating the materials that are used in the manufacturing of the fuel cell and, perhaps, the use of metal in place of ceramic for electrical conductors.”

At present, fuel cells operate at 1,000 C, which requires the use of high cost alloys and components. It is estimated that ceramic interconnects contribute $206 per kilowatt, compared to a target cost of $10 per kilowatt that could be achieved by the use of alternatives. The key to accomplishing the reduction in cost is a reduction in operating temperature to 700 C without compromising output. Tests are presently underway to determine the viability of stainless steel as a replacement for ceramic.

Other targets are designing fabrication techniques that will allow more efficient production of the cells.

“Once the demand for fuel cells increases, prices will begin to come down,” Eschbach said.

The bottom line

The Hopeland project clearly demonstrates that coalbed methane can be successfully converted to electricity, providing another use for this poisonous gas. FuelCell Energy’s powerplant has demonstrated the viability of current technology, albeit at a prohibitive cost. Fortunately, a key element in the SECA dictate is a revision of existing trademark law allows all participants in the process to benefit collectively from breakthroughs, perhaps eliminating proprietary constraints in divulging new technology.

The project is, at the least, a giant baby step forward.

So, for closers, imagine this: a public landfill, or stockyard filled with hundreds of cattle awaiting their destiny. Imagine the odor, then enclosing the area under a sealed dome, like an indoor tennis court. Then, exhausting and piping that methane to a fuel cell that converts the gas to electricity to power a meat plant, or air conditioned tennis facility.

That is not a farfetched concept. The results? All positive: cheap electricity and an improved environment, unless you’re a steer, of course.

If NETL and its partners are successful, that concept will become a reality in only five years. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.