July 2, 2003
Purdue Research Park company seeks new ways to fuel the future
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. More than 200 years after Alessandro Volta invented the first battery, scientists at the Purdue Research Park are developing "batteries" that may someday power entire households and propel automobiles.
Swift Enterprises Ltd., a research park startup venture, has been developing these new batteries called fuel cells using hydrogen peroxide since before President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address pledged $1.2 billion in federal money for national fuel cell research.
"Fuel cell system technology hasn't advanced much since it was developed to support the manned space effort in the 1960s," says John Rusek, Swift's founder and chief engineer, and an adjunct professor in Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
"A fuel reformation system converts hydrogen-containing fuel to hydrogen that the fuel cell can use," Rusek says. "The hydrogen, carbon dioxide and additional trace components produced by the conversion process are called reformate fuel. These reformate fuel cells emit greenhouse gases and create other environmental concerns. We're working on direct, nontoxic fuel cells that are cleaner, safer, more powerful and more reliable."
Mary Rusek, Swift's co-founder and president, says, "Fuel cells have many advantages over batteries. A traditional battery is a closed system, which means that once the chemical reaction is finished, the user either has to recharge the battery or buy a new one. Fuel cells, however, operate as an open system. Fuel or gas flows through the cell on demand. Once all of the fuel is consumed, more can be added to make the cell produce more energy.
"In addition, robust fuel cells don't have a shelf life because their chemical reaction can be turned on and off. Inside a battery reactions are always taking place, even if the battery is not in use."
John Rusek asks, "How many times have you needed to use a flashlight only to discover that the battery was dead? With fuel cells, I can accurately determine how much power the cell can generate at any given time, and when power is gone, I can recycle the cell."
Swift also holds patents involving highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide as it relates to propulsion.
Propulsion, John Rusek says, can be achieved with hypergolic fluids (fuels that burn on contact with an oxidizer) that allow satellites and missiles to make minute directional adjustments as controllers start and stop the flow of liquid and, thereby, start and stop the burn. Unlike oxygen mixing with gasoline in an internal combustion engine, hypergolic propellants are safer because they don't need a spark to set off a reaction. These chemicals react with each other at any level of concentration and never reach a point at which they become explosive.
The company's research team is using hydrogen peroxide to create hypergolic propellants that are nontoxic. Peroxide, as opposed to conventional hypergols, is a better power source because it is much less poisonous to humans and the environment, John Rusek says. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) still uses toxic hypergolic propellants that are carcinogenic and require astronauts to wait at least one hour before departing the space shuttle while these propellants are safely off-loaded.
To feed electricity to the on-board computer system of a rocket, Swift has designed what they call an "on-the-fly" fuel cell, in which a small amount of nontoxic propellant is diverted to flow through a semi-solid-state fuel cell in order to produce the electricity needed.
The chemical propellants Swift has developed with funding from the Department of Defense for satellites, space shuttles and missiles have other applications, including automotive uses.
"I really have a problem with pumping oil a thousand feet out of the ground, shipping it halfway around the world, and refining it just to burn it," John Rusek says. "Our hypergolic hybrids are based on a renewable source, such as methanol or ethanol made from biomass, and can be injected directly into a fuel cell to power an electric motor."
The company also has applied for a patent in the field of bioelectrocatalysis, using hydrogen peroxide to generate electrical energy. As hydrogen peroxide decomposes, it normally generates water, oxygen and heat in reactions that do not provide a significant amount of usable energy. Swift has developed a way to increase the amount of energy released.
The next step in Swift Enterprises' research is the development of several prototypes, for which the Ruseks plan to partner with Indiana-based manufacturers. A rural electric company has discussed working with Swift to develop a propane-based fuel cell for agricultural operations. Silent and with no long-distance wiring, this fuel cell would provide power to an entire farm without noise.
With a $172,000 grant from the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, the Ruseks founded Swift Enterprises in 2001 and began obtaining federal research grants, including a Pentagon research contract for an experimental fuel cell able to power missiles sent into space to hunt down incoming ballistic missiles. Since then the company has filed applications for eight hydrogen peroxide-related patents and presently employs seven technologists.
Purdue Research Park, operated by the Purdue Research Foundation, encompasses 591 acres in West Lafayette, Ind. With 38 buildings, the park is home to 104 businesses, of which 58 are high-tech. These companies employ more than 2,200 people.
Writer: Jeanine Phipps, (765) 423-2923, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Mary Rusek, (765) 464-8336, email@example.com
John Rusek, (765) 464-8336, firstname.lastname@example.org
John Rusek, an adjunct professor in Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and co-founder of Swift Enterprises Ltd., holds an older fuel cell model in his West Lafayette lab while demonstrating the newer version, shown at the bottom of the photo. (Purdue News Service Photo/Dave Umberger)
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