Hydrogen boosts Beloit


As part of its commitment to sustainability, the city has installed hydrogen-on-demand units on five vehicles—a police squad car, a small pickup truck, a large pickup truck, a garbage truck and a recycling truck, said Chris Walsh, operations director for the public works department.

"This is huge for the city of Beloit," she said.

The technology could help the city significantly boost its gas mileage, trim its fuel costs and minimize its carbon footprint, Walsh said.

"And actually, I just love to be on the cutting edge of things, so this is just another one of the projects we wanted to try," she said.

Dan Lutz was so captivated by hydrogen-on-demand technology that he spent months tinkering in his garage to construct a hydrogen booster to help increase the gas mileage on his pickup truck.

"I just thought, 'Man, this is amazing,'" he said. "I wanted to see if this really worked."

The modest unit—fashioned from stainless steel electrical wall plates, PVC pipe and plastic tubing—produced impressive results: The pickup truck went from 11 miles per gallon to 22 miles per gallon during a 70-mile test drive.

Lutz was floored.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this. This really works,'" he said.

Lutz, the fleet manager for the public works department, took the idea to work.

"I just said, 'What do you think about running your fleet on water?'" he said.

It didn't take much to convince the department to dig further into hydrogen technology.

"The first thing out of my mouth was, 'Let's try it,'" Walsh said. "We take calculated risks. I know that's different for most municipal government, but the city is in a situation where if we don't take calculated risks to be as efficient and cost-effective as we can, we'd be in trouble."

The department started in November by installing wet cell hydrogen units from Oklahoma-based Protium Fuel Systems on three vehicles—a large pickup truck, a garbage truck and a recycling truck.

But it quickly ran into trouble with the units, forcing the department's mechanics to redesign the boosters so they worked, Lutz said. The three vehicles still are running on those rebuilt boosters.

Hydrogen-on-demand technology has changed dramatically in the last several months, and the department wanted to give new-and-improved boosters a shot, Lutz said.

The department last month installed hydrogen dry cell units from California-based L2 Hybrids on two more vehicles—a police squad car and a small pickup truck.

While the department isn't having much trouble with the new units, it's still working out the kinks, Lutz said.

"This is very experimental," he said. "We run into problems, run into issues every week."

So how does hydrogen-on-demand technology work?

The units the public works department installed produce hydrogen as needed through the electrolysis of water.

Under the hood, a plastic reservoir is filled with distilled water. The water circulates through the booster, where an electric current breaks it into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen gas then is injected into the engine to help gasoline burn more efficiently.

And how does hydrogen improve gas mileage?

Unleaded gasoline engines are only about 20 percent efficient. That means the engine is burning only one-fifth of the gasoline pumped into the vehicle; the rest leaves as exhaust through the tailpipe, Lutz said.

But the introduction of hydrogen makes engines burn 100 percent efficient. Hydrogen is a volatile gas, and when it's added to the combustion cycle, it forces everything to burn. That means more miles per gallon and fewer emissions, Lutz said.

In 2008, the public works department spent $365,529 for diesel fuel and $344,730 for unleaded fuel for its 330-vehicle fleet—a total of $710,259 in fuel costs.

Assuming the department sees a 25 percent savings using hydrogen-on-demand technology on 163 vehicles—about half the fleet of garbage trucks, recycling trucks and pickup trucks—the department could save $177,565 in a year.

Walsh said the estimate is "very conservative" because vehicles with hydrogen boosters typically see an increase in gas mileage between 20 and 50 percent and higher.

The public works department already has seen its small pickup truck go from 14 to 22 mpg—a 57 percent increase. The truck has even gotten gas mileage as high as 31 mpg—a whopping 121 percent increase. And its large pickup truck has gone from 12 to 20 mpg—a 67 percent increase.

Each hydrogen-on-demand unit costs $1,700. Installation for one vehicle costs $400. Retrofitting half the fleet would cost $421,197.

Based on the estimated 25 percent savings, the hydrogen boosters would pay for themselves within about 2 1/2 years.

"You can imagine the impact this can have on local government, state government, federal government for saving money," Walsh said.

City Manager Larry Arft said the city is slated to get federal stimulus money, which could help pay for the project. But the department is relying on test results to show the money would be well spent on installing hydrogen-on-demand units in the department's vehicles, he said.

"We know the basic technology works, but the issue is, is it practical," he said. "Can it be used realistically?"

Walsh said the department is continuing to put the five vehicles through tests. The department will evaluate the results in about three months, and if the results are favorable, hydrogen boosters would be installed in half of the department's vehicles, she said.

It makes more sense to "retrofit" the vehicles with hydrogen-on-demand systems than to replace the entire fleet with hybrid vehicles, she said.


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