The future of Ohio and fuel cells in perspective

Leslie Arntz

It’s time to take the rosy glasses off.

Sunday’s Plain Dealer featured an article about Ohio becoming a leader in the fuel cell industry, but asssistant professor Yuriy Tolmachev warned to proceed with caution.

Two companies announced plans to locate facilities in Ohio, another received a federal grant and two others announced “significant development,” according to the article.

And the Ohio Department of Development co-sponsored the opening reception of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council’s annual conference Monday.

“Sponsoring a banquet does not make you a leader in the field,” said Tolmachev, who studies fuel cells in the chemistry department. “A leader in fuel cells? They wish.”

Tolmachev described most of the companies and their research as either dead ends or wasted tax-payer dollars.

Rolls-Royce PLC is creating a fuel subsidiary to open on the campus of Stark State College of Technology early next year.

“The technology they work on is promising,” Tolmachev said. “But it has serious problems. (It’s) not suitable for automotive applications.”

He said the most promising venture was Parma-based GrafTech International Ltd., which won a $2.3 million federal grant to continue work on parts for automotive fuel cells.

Tolmachev said the money is all focused on research about fuel cells, not production of usable applications.

“Fuel cells are just coming into the realm of application,” said Don Coates, an assistant professor in the College of Technology. “We’re still in the infancy of using them. The basic research is still ongoing.”

Coates incorporates fuel cells in his teaching to the extent of what they are, what they do and where they are at currently.

He said the goal is to bring students up to date on the industry because they may be maintaining fuel cell systems in the future.

Tolmachev said mechanics who have an understanding far beyond oil motors will be the ones installing and maintaining fuel cells in the cars of the future.

He said the United States will have to stop using gas for cars by 2050.

Primary energy sources are found in the sun, water, wind and fossil fuels.

“Electricity doesn’t exist in nature — we need to create it,” Tolmachev said. “To use it in car, we need to store it, put it in a battery or put it in a fuel, which is extremely inefficient.”

Fuel cells generally combine oxygen from the air with hydrogen to produce electricity.

They are 60 percent efficient, compared to a 10 percent efficiency when burning gas, Tolmachev said.

Coates said the only source of energy that could provide for 100 percent of the United States’ energy demand is the sun.

“If we harnessed one-tenth of 1 percent of solar energy, it could supply all of the United States,” he said.

Solar energy faces the same problems that any other alternative faces: how to efficiently store it.

Both agree that replacements for fossil fuels must be found.

“There’s a camp that says to walk more, drive less and wear sweaters,” Coates said. “Don’t believe it will be a solution. We’ve got to find better sources (of energy).”

Contact College of Technology reporter Leslie Arntz at [email protected].