Fuel cell powers UAF energy research

Posted: Monday, August 04, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers are studying a new technology that could one day provide a clean and efficient source of energy for rural Alaska.

The UAF Arctic Technology Development Laboratory plan to gauge the feasibility of using new natural gas fuel cells to generate electricity.

Laboratory director Dennis Witmer said fuel cells are an appealing idea for rural Alaska because they are efficient, have the potential to operate for long periods of time without much maintenance and produce next to no emissions.

Researchers plan to study the performance of the fuel cells, created by Canadian company Fuel Cell Technologies, over the next several years.

''Right now, I would say we're probably at least five or 10 years from these being used in a remote village,'' Witmer said.

Fairbanks Natural Gas is using electricity created by the fuel cells to partially power its building. The cells convert energy created by a chemical reaction in natural gas into electricity.

The new technology differs from past fuel cells studied by UAF researchers in that it eliminates a step in the process of creating power, Witmer said.

Previous technology first converted gas to hydrogen to create electricity. This new solid oxide fuel cell uses a direct chemical reaction to produce electricity.

UAF researchers hope the solid oxide fuel cells work better than previous technology, which were not as efficient and did not last as long as originally hoped, Witmer said.

''I would love it if this thing would run for 10 or 15 years. It certainly has that potential,'' said Witmer, explaining that the long-term functionality of fuel cells is one largely unknown factor.

UAF purchased the fuel cell and held a ceremony on Friday to explain the technology.

Fuel Cell Technologies spokesman Matt Hofford said making the cells accessible to the public is an important part of the technology becoming a viable power source for rural areas like Alaska.

''Everyone's skeptical,'' Hofford said. ''There have been a lot of people making claims that haven't worked. That's why it's important to actually have a fuel cell out here for the public.''

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