Fuel Cell Work Excites URS Staffers

October 15, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Tom Schuelke acts a bit like a kid with a new toy.

Except that this particular toy is an electricity generating plant so new and different that he and his colleagues are writing the book about how it, or devices similar to it, may remake 21st century America.

“It’s a dream project,” he adds with a grin.

Schuelke, a URS engineer, is the project manager for the fuel cell energy generating plant that will power Muskegon’s downtown smart park.

The project is of special interest to him in part because he is a Muskegon native. Thus, he has the built-in enthusiasm about being part of what he hopes will be his hometown’s renaissance.

But he indicted the project also is professionally fascinating because the URS task there is fundamental to what will make the park smart.

Basically, URS is designing the park’s energy research center, its energy production plant and the micro grid through which that plant will supply electricity to the research center and the park’s tenants.

Schuelke told the Business Journal that the heart of the energy generating plant will be eight 250-kilowatt fuel cells. Siemens Westinghouse is to begin production on the first of the cells in 2004 with the completion of a new manufacturing plant in Pittsburgh, Penn.

“Basically, we’re responsible for everything to do with the fuel cells,” Schuelke said.

Meanwhile, he said, Siemens in Germany also is reconfiguring a 100-kilowatt fuel cell that it will ship here next year to provide power for initial work at the research center itself, which is to be operated by Grand Valley State University.

So what exactly is a fuel cell?

Schuelke and his supervisor, Rob Vensas — an engineer who is a URS vice president and operations manager — say the device looks nothing at all like the towering boilers and massive steam turbines of conventional power plants.

In fact, a fuel cell is remarkably unimpressive looking, at first glance appearing to be a row of tall file cabinets or well lockers. In some instances, it is surmounted by heat recovery equipment that looks vaguely like — but is not — a set of smoke stacks.

Otherwise, a 250-kilowatt fuel cell basically is a 33-foot featureless box containing a long dense cluster of thin ceramic tubes inside a skid-mounted steel frame. Such a cell is 13 feet high and 12 feet wide.

It weighs about 35 tons, and the URS team is designing a power generation building to which each cell can be delivered through one large door and then maneuvered into its proper place.

“Except for a fan that drives air into one end, it has no moving parts,” Schuelke explained.

He said that the devices to be used in the Muskegon generating plant are called solid oxide fuel cells and that they function by breaking down their fuel: natural gas.

“The breakdown causes an ion transfer,” Schuelke said. “You have a membrane and a cathode in it and an anode — and that generates electricity. And it is so clean. The only by-products are carbon dioxide and heat.”

He said the process raises a cell’s internal temperature to about 1,500 degrees, offering substantial potential for heat recovery and use — something the URS design will focus upon.

Schuelke said that fuel cells also are far more efficient than steam turbine technology.

He explained that conventional gas turbine generation operates at up to 36 percent efficiency and that if such a plant recaptures its own heat to co-generate more electricity with a steam turbine, its efficiency rises into the 40 percent to 45 percent range.

By contrast, he said, a fuel cell operates at better than 45 percent, and — if one recovers and uses its heat — then it rises into the 70th percentile.

And heat recovery will be a feature of the Muskegon project. Vensas said, moreover, that in addition to heat recovery, URS also will integrate other elements into the project. He said photovoltaic cells will cover the roofs of the research and power generating centers and both centers, too, will use batteries to store solar power.

He said the project also may use miniature electricity-generating turbines, the idea being to learn as much as possible about how well — or even whether — a miscellany of such power storage and generating devices can work together.

“We’re also looking at hot water distribution about the site,” Vensas said. “Efficiency gets so high when you supply hot water.”

“Yes,” Schuelke said, “and a lot of people don’t believe it, but you can use hot water not only for heating in the winter, but cooling in the summer, too.”

The two men said the energy production center will be a two-story building with about 15,000 square feet of floor space.

Perhaps fittingly, the center with its environmentally friendly fuel cells will occupy a small part of a knoll which overlays the site of what once was Lakey Foundry.

For decades, the sprawling engine block plant poured cyanide from its waterfront docks into Muskegon Lake while its stacks spewed fly ash and sulfur dioxide gas into Muskegon’s central business district. Thanks to the factory’s air pollution, in fact, Muskegon at one time was known as a pack-a-day town where everybody smoked regardless of whether they used tobacco.

Vensas said the key thing to understand now is that the Muskegon energy generation project is unique. He said it will be the first applied testing and use in the United States of a lot of theoretical knowledge.

“You can only work so long on the drawing boards,” he said. “But then you’ve got to build the system and find out all the unforeseen things.” He said that currently, nobody really knows how fuel cells will interact with existing power systems.

For instance, he noted that a fuel cell operates at a fairly constant output whereas the output of a steam turbine plant fluctuates sharply during the course of a day, depending upon demand.

“Well, fuel cells can fluctuate a bit,” he said, “but they like to run at a pretty constant output.” Moreover, one just doesn’t take a fuel cell off line or put it back on line willy-nilly. It takes about eight hours to get a cold fuel into full operation — a starting process that requires ethanol and water. 

“Part of the practical research” Vensas said, “is to see how much fluctuation fuel cells can take when running a micro grid. Maybe it will turn out that we need to operate micro turbines with them.

“Right now,” he added, “Consumers Energy (the major power supplier in Muskegon) is working with us on the micro grid. We’re just filling out the application for inter-ties of the micro grid with the Consumers grid.

“And the questions are: ‘How will this react with our system?’ Well, we can’t tell them that right now. We don’t know. ‘What if this happens? What happens if that happens? What happens if you have a fault here?’

“It’s not like we’re working doing a typical generator,” he said, “where everybody knows that it’s X times its full load of current.”

Schuelke pointed out that a number of administrative unknowns spring to mind, too.

“No one knows anything about fuel cells,” he said.

“That’s including building inspectors; that’s including regulatory agencies. And we’re going to have to go through a process to teaching these people about this equipment so that we can even get permits to install them.”

“We’re bringing in a relatively new product and integrating into a new operating system — and we’re going to be finding out a lot.” 

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