Let’s get powered up: Fuel cell runs on soybean oil

LONDON, Ohio – The nondescript 3-foot-tall silver cylindrical box stood just inside the Ohio Soybean Council building at the Farm Science Review. A jug of unblended soybean oil sat at its side, both atop a wagon base on wheels.
This was a fuel cell?
Yep. Generating 1 kilowatt of energy – about the average power consumption of a home in the Midwest.
The Farm Science Review, Sept. 18-20, was the first public demonstration of the solid oxide fuel cell system operating on vegetable oil made from soybeans.
TMI President Benson Lee said this is the first known instance where unblended soybean oil has been converted by a fuel cell system into electricity.
A revolution. The compact fuel cell has the potential to “revolutionize electricity production throughout the world,” said Michael Petrik, vice president and general manager of Technology Management Inc.
The Cleveland-based company is Ohio’s first independent fuel cell systems developer, working with a proprietary design developed at SOHIO/BP. Technology Management acquired the rights to the design.
The modular design it showcased at the Farm Science Review weighs under 100 pounds and uses soybean oil or biodiesel to create DC power and heat. In tests, it ran approximately 75 hours on soybean oil, 24 hours on biodiesel, six hours on ethanol and 45 hours on diesel.
Now, Petrik added, “it just needs to be scaled and reproduced for manufacture.”
Farmers back project. The Ohio Soybean Council has funded the fuel cell research through checkoff dollars. The project received $100,000 in both the 2007 and 2008 research cycles.
“It’s outside the drawing board,” said council board member David Black, who farms 2,000 acres in Franklin and Pickaway counties, “and yet it’s something real practical.”
It also gives him a new perspective on future markets as he’s combining his soybean fields.
“This bean could be used in a fuel cell,” Black said at the Review. “You get really excited about it.”
Technology Management also received funding from the USDA and Department of Energy, and ultimately became funded through Ohio’s Third Frontier program to develop the 1 kilowatt unit.
Small unit, big potential. The unit is a laboratory system, Petrik admitted, but it shows the potential of the concept, particularly as a residential-sized electricity generator.
And it also proved the unit could be powered by multiple fuels, a feature other systems on the research drawing table don’t have.
“None of them have flexibility of fuels that we have,” Petrik said.
Manure power. Technology Management Inc. is also partnering with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Ohio State’s Biomass to Energy Program.
The company is collaborating on the development of a small scale anaerobic digester to convert animal and food wastes into digester biogas, which also can be used in the fuel cell system to produce electricity and heat.
The next step is making systems for field tests and pre-commercial manufacture.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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