Both hydrogen and biogas have their downsides as energy sources. But a team of researchers from the Ad Astra Rocket Company and Cummins Power Generation are exploring whether the combination might bring out the best in both alternative fuels.
The two companies announced in June that they have successfully powered a Cummins electrical generator using a mix of hydrogen and biogas. While there is still a lot of work to be done, this latest achievement could be a significant milestone, especially for developing countries where natural resources are scarce.
“This is a tremendous achievement in terms of the science and engineering as well as the environmental benefits associated with the use of hydrogen and biogas,” said Franklin Chang Díaz, a former astronaut who is Ad Astra’s Chief Executive Officer.
“This is innovation at its finest and innovation is one of our Company’s core values,” added Cummins Power Generation President Tony Satterthwaite.
Ad Astra is based in Costa Rica where all of the country’s petroleum is imported. Leaders there have made energy independence a major priority. Water is one resource the country has plenty of and capitalizing on the H in H2O has long been considered a possible way to help meet the country’s power needs.
Cummins is a global power leader based in Columbus, Ind. The Company produces diesel and natural gas engines, power generation systems and related parts and accessories. Chang Diaz is a member of the Cummins Board of Directors.
EARTH University is a third partner in this initiative. The school based in Costa Rica teaches students from around the world the benefits of sustainable agriculture including converting animal waste into an energy source. Cummins has long been a supporter of the university.
Hydrogen and biogas are problematic fuel sources for several reasons. Hydrogen is volatile and difficult to control making storage a challenge. Biogas, meanwhile, can vary significantly in its energy content depending upon its source.
“You can get a bio digester for $500 to $1,000 to transform animal waste into gas, and once you remove the gas, what’s left can result in a very nitrogen-rich fertilizer. So you can see the potential,” said Clayton Smith, a Senior Mechanical Engineer with Cummins Power Generation who is working on the project.
“The quality of the fuel, however, can vary widely and it is not as potent as pure natural gas,” he said.
Smith said essentially what researchers are exploring is whether the combination of hydrogen and biogas makes a higher quality biogas with a reasonable amount of hydrogen, resulting in a truly useful renewable fuel that is comparable to natural gas.
The teams from Ad Astra and Cummins designed a reliable process to mix and control hydrogen and biogas. Meanwhile, Ad Astra has been working on technology to store hydrogen safely and affordably.
Cummins Power Generation built the test generator at its headquarters in Fridley, Minn. and shipped it to Costa Rica for additional testing by Ad Astra. Now that this latest round of work is complete, Smith said the two companies will begin exploring what ratios of hydrogen and biogas work best, hopefully reaching “the point of most return.”
“We are trying to wring the sponge as hard as we can at this point to get every bit of information possible,” Smith said.
Wilhelm Steinvorth, Director of Corporate Strategy at Ad Astra, said he believes the partnership is particularly well positioned for success both physically and from a skills perspective. Ad Astra, for example, is relatively close to EARTH University and its digesters.
But perhaps more importantly, both Ad Astra and the college are operating in an environment where developing sources of renewable energy is a top national priority. Facilities exploring the use of wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric energy are within two or three hours of Ad Astra’s lab.
Steinvorth said both Cummins and Ad Astra bring unique skill sets to the challenges inherent in the development of clean, renewable energy.
“It is important to remember that Ad Astra was initially focused on space transportation, but in a natural, evolutionary way we discovered that some of our unique engineering and physics research and development capabilities could be applied to solving challenging issues in the renewable energy field,” Steinvorth said. “For example, the rocket engine we are developing uses plasma created from gases including hydrogen.”
While the hydrogen and biogas project may hold the most potential for developing countries, Smith said it could also benefit developed countries as well.
Large dairies, for example, that produce a lot of animal waste, could generate the gas necessary to run their trucks and power other operations. A dairy in Northwest Indiana, Fair Oaks Farms, is already running its truck fleet on biogas using Cummins natural gas engines.
“We are at the foot of the mountain in terms of this project,” Smith said of the Cummins-Ad Astra-EARTH University partnership.
“But there is a lot of potential.”
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