Ed Merriman / The Bulletin

Hydrogen technology with the greatest potential for replacing fossil fuels took a giant leap forward at Bend-based IdaTech with the manufacture and worldwide sales of a new generation of hydrogen fuel cells that generate electricity from a mixture of methanol and water, according to company officials.

Until now, use of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels was hampered by the cost and bulkiness of heavy cylinders of compressed hydrogen gas used to fuel hydrogen fuel cells. But IdaTech broke through that barrier with the manufacture of its ElectraGen ME, which incorporates a built-in hydrogen fuel reformer that converts a mixture of methanol and water into hydrogen, according to Hal Koyama, IdaTech president and CEO.

During the 13 years since IdaTech was founded in Bend, Koyama said the company and its European owners have invested millions of dollars in research and development of hydrogen fuel cell technology, but the ElectraGen ME is the first combined hydrogen fuel cell/hydrogen fuel reformer where the manufacturing cost is low enough that each unit can be sold for a profit.

“This marks the turning point for IdaTech,” Koyama said. “The company hasn’t turned a profit yet, but the ElectraGen ME is the first model (of hydrogen fuel cell) we’ve been able to build and sell at a profit.”

Koyama said the ElectraGen ME “is replacing 200-year-old diesel engine technology.”

Another Bend company, Element One, also is on the cutting edge of hydrogen fuel technology creating hydrogen from a methanol-water mixture, and recently announced an agreement with a Chinese manufacturing company to build a hydrogen fuel reformer, but Koyama said IdaTech is the first to combine hydrogen fuel cells with hydrogen fuel reformers in one unit.

Since IdaTech began manufacturing the ElectraGen ME in Tijuana, Mexico, in December, Koyama said 800 of the units have been sold and delivered in more than 30 countries, and the company has a backlog of more than 10,000 orders from telecommunications companies. Those companies seek to replace noisy, carbon-puffing diesel generators used for backup power supply for cell towers with quiet hydrogen fuel cell units designed in Bend.

In Bend, IdaTech employs 78 people and is recruiting for electrical, chemical, mechanical and software engineers.

“This is where we do all the technical research and product development for the company,” Koyama said. “We hold more than 150 patents around the world. We licensed 45 patents in the last quarter of last year.”

He said a market study conducted by IdaTech prior to initiating the manufacturing phase in December showed the potential world market of around $1 billion for the ElectraGen ME and its other hydrogen fuel cell models.

Future cars

By successfully manufacturing a hydrogen fuel cell that essentially runs on methanol and water, Koyama said IdaTech has contributed to the advancement of hydrogen fuel cells as a potential replacement for fossil fuels and internal combustion engines that power everything from diesel generators to cars, trains, airplanes, power plants and more.

He said 2011 is a big year for IdaTech, with the production of its first profitable and therefore commercially viable hydrogen fuel cell model. And 2015 is expected to be a big year for development of a hydrogen-powered car to be released by Toyota and Honda that will use some of the same technology as IdaTech’s hydrogen fuel cells and fuel reformers.

However, Koyama said instead of packaging the fuel reformers with the hydrogen fuel cells, automotive manufacturers are working with a model where the fuel cells are equipped with a refillable tank for compressed hydrogen.

Instead of installing the hydrogen reformers on each car, which Koyama said would be cost prohibitive with current technology, the automotive strategy involves putting large hydrogen reformers at gas stations.

At gas stations, methanol and water mixtures would be piped through a hydrogen fuel reformer and converted to compressed hydrogen gas, which could be pumped into a vehicle’s hydrogen tank, Koyama said.

“Honda and Toyota both announced they will have commercial hydrogen fuel vehicles in 2015,” he said.

While IdaTech is not currently involved in the manufacture of any hydrogen fuel cells or parts to be used in the future hydrogen-powered automobiles, Koyama said it may be worth examining down the road.

Backup power

Koyama graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in math and physics, then served nine years as a Navy submarine officer before returning to college and earning a master’s degree from the Stanford University School of Business. He worked as a consultant and with other green energy companies, including United Technology in Los Angeles, before returning to Oregon in 2007 to become IdaTech’s president and CEO.

“One of my primary goals in coming to IdaTech was to help the company develop a profitable product, and with the ElectraGen ME, we have accomplished that goal,” Koyama said.

He said to accomplish that goal, the ElectraGen ME is 30 percent smaller than earlier models, and instead of using nearly all custom-built components, the company found ways to use many parts already being manufactured in the automobile industry. Those parts are available for far less cost than the custom-built parts IdaTech used in earlier models.

Kathy Fosberg, marketing communications manager at IdaTech, said one of the advantages of the new system fueled by methanol and water is “you don’t need to lug heavy hydrogen cylinders to the top of the mountain, where cell towers are generally located.

“For backup power, our ElectraGen ME units are replacing diesel generators and large battery strings,” Fosberg said.

The ElectraGen ME units come in 2.5-kilowatt-per-hour or 5-kilowatt-per-hour models. They are shaped similar to a side-by-side refrigerator, with the fuel cells located on one side and the hydrogen reformer on the other side.

“As of right now the average unit cost is about $16,500 for the ElectraGen ME,” Koyama said.

The existing plant in Mexico is set up to produce 5,000 units per year, according to information provided by IdaTech.

Since the ElectraGen ME units began rolling off an assembly line in Tijuana, Fosberg said IdaTech has been selling and shipping all over the world, with sales of the ElectraGen ME in January and February bringing the total to 800 units sold.

“When the power goes out, that’s when our system turns on,” Fosberg said.

Worldwide sales

In addition to sales of the ElectraGen ME across the United States and Canada, IdaTech reported units have been sold over the past two months to Asian nations including India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan; to the European countries of Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom; and to a number of other countries, including South Africa, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and Australia.

With the mass production of hydrogen fuel cells that run on a mixture of methanol and water, Fosberg said IdaTech is helping propel green hydrogen technology into the future.

Documents provided by Ida-Tech show it takes just 59 gallons of bio-methanol fuel (methanol/water mixture) to produce the volume of compressed hydrogen gas contained in 30 hydrogen cylinders, which is the amount needed to power a 5-kilowatt fuel cell for 50 hours of operation.

It’s much easier to install a tank to store bio-methanol fuel on site than it is to haul in 30 hydrogen cylinders every two days or so while a hydrogen fuel cell is generating electricity, Fosberg said.

She said compared with diesel generators, generating electricity with hydrogen fuel cells eliminates particulate matter emissions, cuts carbon dioxide emissions in half and reduces carbon, nitrogen oxide and sulfur emissions by 95 percent.

Hydrogen fuel cells are 20 percent more fuel efficient than diesel generators and, when equipped with hydrogen fuel reformers, run on a renewable liquid fuel — the bio-methanol, according IdaTech documents.

Methanol used as a fuel in the ElectraGen ME can be made from just about anything from plant, animal and human wastes to woody biomass and crop residues, which solves the hydrogen supply and logistical problems with earlier models that ran strictly on compressed hydrogen gas, Fosberg said.

As a result, she said, there’s a huge demand for the ElectraGen ME in underdeveloped countries. That demand, in turn, is bumping up production of the units, which is one of the factors helping to drive down the cost per unit.

The methanol — mixed about two parts to one with water to power hydrogen fuel cells — is similar to the methanol used in windshield washer fluid, engine additives, latex paints, plastic bottles and other things, according to IdaTech product information documents.

Fosberg said methanol is preferable to diesel or other fossil fuels because it’s easily biodegradable, sulfur-free, has a low freezing point of minus 95.8 degrees and does not degrade when stored for a long time.

“It is biodegradable, so nobody cares if you spill some of it on the ground,” Fosberg said.

Company: IdaTech

Location: 63065 N.E. 18th St., Bend

Local employment: 78

Website: www.idatech.com