UTC Power boss Jan Van Dokkum is a passionate advocate of the fuel cell, pioneered by his company everywhere from space to the US highways. Niall Firth reports.

From buildings and cars to buses and submarines, UTC Power, the fuel cell arm of $37bn (£19.4bn) US manufacturing behemoth UTC Corp, has its fingers in all kinds of renewable energy pies. So it’s not surprising that UTC Power president Jan Van Dokkum seems so upbeat about the future of the hydrogen economy.

Enthusiastic and passionate about his subject, Van Dokkum, who joined UTC from Siemens in 2002, has been extremely active in making the fuel cell business a success, particularly in the field of onsite generation.

UTC Power’s key fuel cell technology comprises a range of PureCell proton-membrane exchange (PEM) fuel cells. Its latest product, the PureCell 5, is a 5KW cell developed to provide power for telecommunications towers and other critical applications. Later this year it is also launching the PureCell400, the latest version of its larger fuel cells that provide power for hospitals and banks. Van Dokkum described the PureCell400 as the ‘product of the future’.

In addition to fuel cells, the company is also pushing its PureComfort product: a microturbine system that as well as providing heat and power can also act as a cooling system, thanks to an absorption chiller that is driven by exhaust heat from the microturbines.

One of these systems has been installed in Wal-Mart’s experimental ‘green’ store in Colorado. ‘Heating and chilling within the same installation makes it a very innovative product; unique in the world in fact,’ claimed Van Dokkum.

What is exciting Van Dokkum most at the moment, however, is his company’s recent foray into geothermal energy production. The first installation of a new kind of geothermal power plant was completed in late July at the Chena Hot Spring spa in Alaska.

The plant produces electricity from low-temperature thermal wells using an innovative process that effectively reverses the usual refrigeration cycle. First, heat from the geothermal source is used to boil the refrigerant, which has a much lower boiling point than water. The refrigerant vapour passes through the turbine, making its blades spin at around 13,500rpm, which in turn drives the generator, producing electricity. According to Van Dokkum, this is an entirely new approach to tapping the Earth’s natural heat.

‘Instead of the other way round, where you use electricity to chill air, we did it in reverse,’ he said. ‘Look at the western US, China, Taiwan, lots of places in Europe; all places where you have geothermal wells. This system means we can operate at far lower temperatures — below 200ºC — than current geothermal power stations and there’s no other solution that can do that. It’s a really exciting area.’

The company is also involved in projects even further afield than Alaska. It has designed, developed, and continues to support the three fuel cell power plants aboard each of NASA’s Space Shuttles.

UTC Power has quite a heritage when it comes to involvement in the space industry. It supplied the fuel cells used on Apollo moon missions in the 1960s, and has since provided the fuel cells that not only provide power but also drinking water for all US manned space flights.

Fuel cells are hugely important for manned space missions. Their high energy density helps to reduce a vehicle’s launch weight, while the water produced as a byproduct can be used not just for drinking but also cooling the spacecraft.

The fuel cells used for space missions are highly specialised alkaline fuel cells that can reach efficiencies of up to 60 per cent in space flights, but are strictly limited in terms of terrestrial applications because they are susceptible to carbon contamination. Van Dokkum said that while future unmanned exploratory missions will undoubtedly use solar power, fuel cells will remain the ideal solution for manned missions.

On the transportation side, things are moving a little more slowly. Even though the company is already working with Nissan, Hyundai and BMW to develop fuel cell technology for cars, commercialisation of the technology is a little way off yet.

Demonstrations of fuel cell technology in cars are under way with the US Department of Energy and the PureCell is being adapted to work with UTC Power’s automotive partners.

Van Dokkum is not put off by the slow pace of making fuel cell transport a reality. For him, any work that is under way is good PR for the future of fuel cells.

‘Using fuel cells in transport applications is extremely important for the development of the technology, as we can demonstrate to people how effective it can be,’ he said. ‘Zero emissions and high efficiency could really get the public thinking about how fuel cells could work in cars. We want to show people that we are moving towards the commercialisation of fuel cells at an extremely rapid pace.’

The real obstacle to UTC Power replicating its onsite fuel cell success in the transport industry is the lack of infrastructure for refuelling hydrogen fuel cells. But Van Dokkum is already working on a solution to this problem. ‘For motor applications we are depending on the infrastructure to help refuel these vehicles so we are working with Shell and BP to make sure we have a transition strategy from gas to hydrogen,’ he said.

Van Dokkum believes that in the future, much of the existing infrastructure could be used as part of this gradual changeover and said the heads of big oil and gas companies are more prepared than one might think to move towards a future hydrogen economy.

‘They have a tremendous infrastructure, built up over the past 100 years, but I believe the leaders of these companies have become quite sensitive to global warming and public perception. Hydrogen could be integrated into their business model so they will start moving that way, I believe.’

So far UTC Power’s work on fuel cell engines has not gone beyond the demonstration stage and Van Dokkum accepts that there is some way to go before a fuel cell-powered car could match the performance of a conventional internal combustion engine. But he is adamant that it is merely the economies of scale that make fuel cell engines more expensive than their internal combustion counterparts.

‘If you look at the cost of building a fuel cell engine versus a traditional engine, we win hands down,’ he said. ‘There are fewer mechanical parts and less use of special materials, but they are producing 16 million units a year, while we still have to hand-build each one of our fuel cells.’

UTC Power is a dominant player in the world renewable energy market and if anyone can make fuel cells work in the automotive field it is likely to be Van Dokkum and his team — particularly as they have the backing of one of the world’s largest conglomerates.

Despite this, he is aware that it is still early days for both the renewable industry and his own firm, however many in-roads it has made in recent years. When compared with one of UTC’s prime brands, UTC Carrier, the world-leading refrigeration and air conditioning firm, UTC Power is like a fledgling start-up, said Van Dokkum.

He added: ‘UTC Power is a commercial power just like Otis, Carrier and the others but, honestly, it is where Carrier was about 80 years ago in terms of maturity. There is still a way to go.’