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Propane fuel cell project first of its kind in Texas
Refueling Fuel Cells

In as few as five years, Texans could use a propane-powered fuel cell to generate electricity for their homes, said Dan Kelly, director of the Railroad Commission of Texas' (RRC) Alternative Fuels Research and Education Division (AFRED).

Fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity cleanly, producing pure water as a by-product, Kelly said. The fuel-cell industry's ultimate goal is to make commercial appliances available at a cost that is competitive with that of electricity from a utility.

In January 2004, AFRED installed the first propane-powered fuel cell in Texas at the Texas Department of Transportation's TransGuide Intelligent Transportation System in San Antonio. The system provides back-up power to several large screens that monitor traffic conditions in San Antonio, said Mary-Jo Rowan, program manager for the State Energy Conservation Office, a division of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

AFRED received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, a $500,000 matching grant from the Propane Education and Research Council and $430,000 from partner companies and state agencies to develop, test and install the prototype system, Rowan said. The team also will look for ways to market the unit, Kelly said.

The propane-powered fuel cell consists of two parts: a fuel processor, which harvests hydrogen from propane, and the fuel cell stack, which generates electricity from the harvested hydrogen, Kelly said.

Free hydrogen, which is needed to power fuel cells, is not abundant in nature, Kelly said. The fuel processor extracts hydrogen from the carbon or oxygen it is bound to in molecules of natural gas, propane or water. Illinois-based HyRadix Inc. built the fuel processor used in the AFRED project.

"We had a natural gas [fuel processor] already," said Michele Davies, manager of business development and governmental relations for HyRadix Inc. "We developed the propane fuel processor for this project. Propane has been a challenge because of the sulfur compounds, but this one has been running really well."

Rowan said the system is too expensive for residential use, but prices are dropping.

"Since we've had this thing up and running, the technology has actually gotten better," Rowan said. "The original company that got awarded the contract [for building the fuel cell stack] got bought out. By the time we did the negotiations with PlugPower, the price had come down."

Pursuing propane
Kelly hopes the trial run of the propane-powered fuel cell will spark interest in Texas propane among fuel-cell manufacturers and help develop a Texas fuel-cell industry.

"The reason propane is an attractive source is that it is a Texas-produced fuel, and it is produced all over the state," Kelly said. "Texas ranks number one in the production and consumption of propane in the United States."

Homes in rural and some suburban areas in Texas that want the convenience of natural gas but don't have access to it use propane, Kelly said.

"Over the next five to 10 years, our goal is to help make this type of appliance broadly available to the more than 1 million rural and suburban Texas households that use propane as their primary fuel," Kelly said.

RRC Commissioner Charles Mathews, a proponent of the fuel cell project, believes fuel cells will benefit cities as well.

"Fuel cells are regarded as the cleanest and most efficient of technologies for converting propane/natural gas into electricity," said Mathews. "The use of these fuel cells will make an impact on the emission problems facing many of the cities throughout the state and country."

Angela Freeman