Michigan: A leader in alternative energy, part three

• Manufacturers plan to make fuel cells more efficient

Following our visits with Next Energy, DTE Energy Technologies and Plug Power, representatives of United Solar Ovonics and Texaco Ovonic Hydrogen Systems made presentations and gave tours of their facilities.

United Solar Ovonics manufactures solar electric panels made of amorphous silicon, which are less than a human hair in thickness. They are produced by depositing precise chemical mixtures in a gaseous form on a moving substrate. They can be manufactured at a rate of three miles per day.

The base is a thin layer of stainless steel, which makes them unbreakable yet extremely flexible. The panels are 15 1/2 inches wide and vary in length from 4 to 18 feet and are sold as rolls or assembled in aluminum frames. They can be free standing or incorporated into membrane, metal and bitumen roofing materials. The panels can also be laid on a flat roof and held in place with weights, avoiding penetrating the roof.

Since the panels only weigh one pound per square foot, they add little weight to a roof. They can be walked on without breaking or diminishing output. While the efficiency with which they convert sunlight is low at 8.2 percent, their per watt cost makes them one of the lowest-cost products in the marketplace.

Ovonics recently completed a fully automated manufacturing facility capable of producing 30 MW per year. As promising as this sounds, the firm is not profitable. It has survived on a combination of revenue from licensing fees, government grants, partnerships and funds invested by partners in joint ventures. Ovonics is attempting to make the transition from a research organization to a multi-faceted business.

Texaco Ovonic Hydrogen Systems is hoping to solve the problem of how to store hydrogen fuel for stationary and mobile applications. Its storage system relies on solids in the form of nickel metal hydrides. A major area of experimentation and demonstration is in providing hydrogen storage for fuel cell-powered cars.

They placed a hydrogen storage tank under 1,500 psi of pressure in the trunk of a Prius hybrid, which enables it to travel 137 miles at 55 miles per hour before needing refueling. The current 10 minutes required to refuel is expected to decrease to 5 minutes. They intend to expand their test vehicles to a fleet of 30 and achieve a driving range of 240 miles per fueling.

All of the technologies described in these columns on Michigan firms and their efforts to create the jobs of the future are in various stages of development and could run up against barriers that limit their market acceptance. Given the boldness of their vision and the diverse approaches they have taken in providing energy solutions for the future, our time spent with them was worthwhile, thought provoking and stimulating.

Interestingly, all of the interchanges were oriented toward technologies under development with no discussion of environmental considerations such as global warming, carbon sequestering and clean sources of hydrogen.

We returned home wondering what aspects of the Michigan effort may apply here and what developments are occurring in Illinois. We also wondered what efforts are occurring in the Rockford area to ensure increased local energy independence and the creation of local jobs in the future energy economy.

Information reported in these three columns relied on interviews with company personnel and press releases from the companies.

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