Hydrogen economy creates opportunities

n Fuel cell forum participants indicate new jobs possible for area About 20 manufacturers and community leaders attended a three-hour forum Oct. 1 at Rock Valley College to discuss the Rockford area’s position to research, develop, manufacture, sell and service hydrogen-based energy products. While one speaker cautioned that a hydrogen economy may be too far in the future for most investors, others emphasized the change from a fossil-fuel economy to a hydrogen economy is inevitable—a change that could mean new employment opportunities for the area. Specifically, the forum was aimed at fuel cell technology and its applications to the automotive industry. Fuel cells have applications in powering automobiles, cell phones, portable computers, homes, institutions and businesses. A fuel cell works by mixing hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce more environmentally friendly energy for machines and water that can be recycled. Hydrogen serves as a carrier of electricity, not as the actual source of energy. The primary source of hydrogen used by fuel cells will be a major topic of economic and political struggle during the next 20 years, according to Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl, president and vice president of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and renewable energy writers for The Rock River Times. Robert Vogl said contenders for hydrogen sources are water via electrolysis through geothermal, hydrodynamic, nuclear, solar or wind power sources; ethanol and methanol from corn and/or soybeans; coal; oil; natural gas; and biomass. Christopher Tynan, venture development manager for The Illinois Coalition, said the forum was one of six hosted statewide by the newly formed Illinois 2 H2, a public/private partnership. Tynan said the partnership was formed by The Illinois Coalition and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to lead, collaborate and advocate “Illinois as an international leader in the research and commercialization of hydrogen-based technologies.” Tynan said although the transition from a fossil-fuel economy to a hydrogen economy presents “cost and technological barriers,” greater use of fuel cells for homes and businesses will produce more reliable electricity sources. Greater reliability will help prevent wide-spread electrical grid blackouts such as the one that covered much of the eastern United States and Canada last summer, Tynan said. The Illinois Coalition is funded by the Small Business Administration and by private contributions by board members. Robert Vogl emphasized energy conservation through more energy-efficient machines and buildings. Vogl said reducing the weight of vehicles would be a primary way to increase vehicle fuel efficiency. Redmond Clark, chief executive officer of Cary-based Metalforming Controls, agreed with Vogl and said the automotive industry aims to produce a 1,200-pound vehicle within the next 10 years that will also safely withstand collisions. Typical sport utility vehicles (SUVs) weigh 6,000-7,000 pounds. The Society of Automotive Engineers recently reported the weight of SUVs could be reduced by 40 percent if frames were made of aluminum rather than other metals. Clark emphasized the 20- to 30-year transition to a hydrogen economy will not be acceptable to most financial investors that usually expect dividend returns within two to three years. Clark’s company uses hydraulic cylinders to shape metal parts for automobiles. With further research, development and investment, such hydraulic cylinders could also be used to mass produce inexpensive, reliable and durable fuel cells. George Gemberling, president of Sun Plastics, Inc., said his company sold almost $250,000 in fuel cell components to Japanese company IHI in 2002. Genberling said: “Japan is way ahead in fuel cell technology….The lack of cooperation between [American] companies in sharing information to research and develop fuel cells is inhibiting our ability to lead.” Gemberling also expressed concern about the lack of steady cash-flow in fuel cell sales and research and development money. “Opportunities are slipping by,” Gemberling said. According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Hydrogen Economy: The Creation of the World-wide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth, the United States is far behind Europe and Iceland in the transition to a hydrogen economy. Robert Vogl said Illinois is behind states such as Michigan in spearheading efforts to lead in renewable energy research, development and product manufacturing. He also said he and his wife will be traveling to Iceland next week to witness the country’s efforts to switch to a hydrogen economy. Rockford Mayor Doug Scott said he appreciated the groups’ efforts and hoped new jobs could be created though their efforts. The forum was also sponsored by the Rockford Area Chamber of Commerce and Illinois Small Business Development Center Network. Three more forums are scheduled in the Chicago area and in southern Illinois. For more information, visit: www.ilcoalition.org.

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